Boyhood home burns; fire chief 'gutted'

Sam Leask (left) inspects the burnt-out ruins of his childhood home in Ophir with Ken Lake, who...
Sam Leask (left) inspects the burnt-out ruins of his childhood home in Ophir with Ken Lake, who was renting the house. Photo by Sarah Marquet.

When Omakau chief fire officer Sam Leask responded to a call late on Tuesday night, he thought his neighbour and tenant had for some reason decided to light the wood pile.

As he drove past the property on his way to the fire station, he realised it was the house that was on fire - not just the house he rented out but the house he grew up in.

By the time he, the Omakau Volunteer Brigade and the Blackstone rural fire service got to the Ophir house, it was well involved.

It was "only by a matter of minutes" and because there was a nearby creek they were able to save the neighbouring wooden storage sheds, he said.

The sole occupant, fencing contractor Ken Lake, was away for work and staying at his sister's place in Maniototo. He was called by Mr Leask about 10.45pm on Tuesday, about an hour after the fire started, but did not get back to inspect his house until yesterday.

Though he was fully insured, all he had left of his possessions were the clothes he stood in "and maybe a pair of jeans back at work".

"I'm gutted ... you hear about places burning down but you never think it's going to happen to you."

Mr Leask, who has been in the brigade for 38 years, 16 of them as chief, and sister Leona Field, of Waikouaiti, said they were also gutted and shocked.

They had grown up in the brick house which was built on their family farm in 1951.

"It doesn't take much time at all for something that is an important part of your heritage to just be gone," Mr Leask said.

The house was also insured.

He said the fire had been noticed shortly before 10pm by a fellow brigade member who, from his Omakau house, saw smoke in the distance and thought it was probably too late for someone to be burning off rubbish so "called it in".

It was "just luck" the man had noticed it when he did as the property was surrounded by tall trees, obscuring it from the road.

The fire brigades were there until 1.30am, though he stayed through the night in case it flared up again.

It was not known yesterday how the fire started.

Mr Lake had been away all week for work but his daughter had been staying. She had left the house about 4.30pm on Tuesday.

Southern region fire investigator Barry Gibson inspected the house yesterday but said it could take a few days before the cause was known due to the extent of the fire.

Mr Leask said because the house was "burnt out completely", it would probably be bulldozed once fire service and insurance company investigations were complete.

Mr Leask said the fire was not being treated as suspicious.

He said though it was an old house, it had been completely re-wired about 10 years ago.


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