Farmhands lucky to flee blaze terror

Naked farm workers who fled a burning Southland house were last night recovering in hospital after a chain of errors which could have claimed their lives.

Authorities said the house did not have working smoke alarms; the fire started after hot embers were left in an uncovered plastic container on the deck; and a man went inside the burning house to retrieve his cellphone - all mistakes which could have proved fatal.

Firefighters from Gore, Pukerau and Tapanui were called to the fire, on State Highway 1 near Pukerau, early yesterday morning.

When they arrived the house was ablaze but the two occupants were outside and uninjured.

The property owner said they had fled naked, but they were clad in T-shirts and towels when firefighters saw them.

Central Otago fire risk management officer Paul Glanville said the fire started after hot embers were left in a plastic bin on the deck.

"It wasn't covered and no water was used to douse them."

News that hot embers had caused the blaze was disappointing to the property's owner, Phillip Pullar.

He had warned the occupants previously about discarding embers incorrectly, he said.

"Last week they were tipping the ashes under the [verandah]. I gave them a stir up, they didn't seem to be aware. I said it was an extremely dangerous thing to do."

Pullar said smoke alarms were in the house and had been working the previous week. He was unsure why they had not worked when the fire started.

Pukerau fire chief Geoff Soper said the Dutch couple were distraught, having lost their possessions including a car, passports and backpacks.

Gore fire chief Steve Lee said he understood the couple were woken by debris falling in another part of the burning house before they smelt the smoke and got out.

"We are very lucky we aren't dealing with fatalities," Lee said.

He urged the public to ensure they had working smoke alarms in their homes and to properly dispose of hot ashes.

Firefighters have previously warned the public about going back inside burning buildings, with the move proving fatal in the past.

Pullar said the couple went to Gore Hospital at noon yesterday because they were suffering from smoke inhalation.

The Southland Times