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Fire spreads to four houses in Newtown; 40 people evacuated

fire newtown
Photo: Rebekah Parsons-King

Report from RNZ
Four houses were on fire in Newtown late last night, and one person was injured. The blaze on Hanson Street spread from one house to its three neighbours, and at its peak there were more than 20 fire engines. The fire was brought under control, but crews remained on site to monitor hotspots.

Fire and Emergency was called out at 10.40pm, and the situation was escalated to a level 5 alarm, which meant crews were summoned from as far away as Upper Hutt.

Some residents of Newtown speculated that the original house to catch fire was abandoned; however fire service duty manager Carlos Dempsey told RNZ it had been occupied. He said no-one was unaccounted for, but one person had been taken to hospital.

About 40 people had to be evacuated from the area.

Two of the houses have been burnt out and two more were damaged.

A witness, Rebekah Parsons-King, said residents on Hanson St and Hall St started smelling smoke about 10.30pm, and as people came out of their houses, they noticed smoke was filling the air.

“Police and fire crew started arriving. As they did, massive flames started flashing in the air,” Parsons-King said.

The first house was fully engulfed by the time the engines started to fight it, she said.

Dempsey said not only the residents of the four houses on fire, but also those of the surrounding area, had been evacuated. Surrounding properties were threatened for a time, and the firefighters had focused on keeping those homes safe, he said.

Senior station officer at Thorndon Brendon Wood told Morning Report the fire spread quickly from one old wooden villa to another. “There was a slight breeze coming across which pushed the fire uphill to the adjoining property. The one where the fire appears to have started is totally destroyed and the adjacent house is beyond repair.”

Two firefighters were treated for injuries. Wood said there was asbestos in the roofing of two of the houses.

Three families totalling 11 people and a dog spent the night in emergency accommodation provided by the council.

gutted newtown house

UPDATE from RNZ
The property manager of a Wellington house that was gutted by a fire overnight says the owner had for years complained about the empty neighbouring house, where it is believed the blaze started. Fire investigators are trying to determine the cause of the fire which spread between four properties on Hanson Street in the suburb of Newtown. Police are treating it as suspicious but no arrests have been made.

Matt Donnelly, who has managed one of the now burnt properties for 10 years, said complaints were made to the council as recently as last month. “We reported that there [were] squatters and they said it was a police issue. We said police won’t do anything unless it’s a crime being committed so we’re kind of stuck.”

The owner of the property Donnelly managed had tried to buy the empty house a number of times, he said. His tenants had problems with cockroaches and vermin, which they linked to the derelict house. “We’ve arranged exterminations but it has been reported that that was most likely caused from the neighbouring property.”

He said it was strange the house was legally allowed to exist in that state after so many complaints.

“The council have said there’s only so much they can do and they’ve said that basically while the rates are continuing to be paid then there’s not much they can do [and] I’ve always questioned that.”

The Wellington City Council said it was aware of the concerns but it had restricted power. Chief operating officer James Roberts said council, public health, building compliance and community services staff had been working with police and other agencies as well as the property owner to try to reduce the risk presented by the property which has now been gutted.

“The situation was complex, deeply unfortunate and difficult to resolve given the restrictive powers of the interested agencies.”

He said a council public health officer had been scheduled to visit the property this afternoon in response to ongoing complaints about rubbish and squatters.

Donnelly said there were four tenants in the property he managed and he hoped to have them into a new rental property very soon.