Fire guts historic villa; building demolished

Fire crews fight to keep the blaze at the The Bank Ophir bed and breakfast under control...
Fire crews fight to keep the blaze at the The Bank Ophir bed and breakfast under control yesterday morning. PHOTO: SHANNON THOMSON
Fire followed by demolition spelled a double blow for a historic Central Otago villa yesterday morning.

It took less than six hours for the 150-year-old house, which operated as a bed and breakfast called The Bank Ophir, in Swindon St, Ophir, to be reduced to a pile of rubble as owner Cheryl Emerson looked on.

A Fire and Emergency New Zealand (Fenz) spokesman said crews were called at 8.30am yesterday to the blaze, which originated in the roof cavity of the building.

Severe winds of up to 120kmh fanned the blaze and required the fire response to be increased throughout the morning amid concerns the fire, which skipped past a cottage on the same section to a woodshed at the rear of the property, would spread into grass on the hillside behind, he said.

"There was a real concern of it sparking a grass fire."

Mrs Emerson escaped the blaze unscathed along with pets but did not want to talk about the ordeal yesterday.

At the peak of the blaze one pump appliance and medical unit from the Omakau Volunteer Fire Brigade, which acted as an initial communications centre, were joined by two Alexandra Volunteer Fire Brigade appliances and a command unit, two Blackstone Voluntary Rural Fire Force fire trucks, a pump from the Clyde Volunteer Fire Brigade and a tanker from the Dunstan Rural Fire Force.

There was little firefighters could do to save the building, the roof collapsing less than an hour after firefighters were first notified of the blaze.

Firefighting efforts were then focused on protecting surrounding properties and preventing the potential grass fire.

A neighbour said it took less than five minutes from when smoke was seen emerging from the roof for the building to become engulfed in flames.

"It just went up."

A woman said the wind — known locally as the "Matakanui Express" due to the sound it made — had possibly fanned the blaze.

"You hear it before it arrives, that gust — then was 120kmh," she said checking an app on her phone.

MetService meteorologist Lewis Ferris could not confirm that speed but said the area was under a severe wind warning.

The nearest area measurements were taken was at Alexandra airport, where the strongest gust recorded was 70kmh.

The Fenz spokesman said the fire was considered to be at the "dampening-down stage" shortly before 10am, but only the exterior shell of the building remained by that time.

An excavator finishes demolishing The Bank Ophir after it was gutted by fire yesterday. PHOTO:...
An excavator finishes demolishing The Bank Ophir after it was gutted by fire yesterday. PHOTO: JARED MORGAN
The wind meant fire crews remained on the scene until the fire was considered completely extinguished and, for safety reasons, the decision was made to demolish the remainder of the building using an excavator.

Only a pile of rubble remained of the building — built in 1870 — by 2.30pm.

The spokesman said a fire investigator was not required and the blaze was not being treated as suspicious.

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