Suspicions over central Christchurch fires

16:00, Dec 09 2012
Christchurch fire
ABLAZE: A massive fire broke out in a three-storey building next to Christchurch's McKenzie & Willis building at the corner of Tuam and High St about 9.20pm.
Christchurch fire
SPARKS FLY: A massive fire in central Christchurch on Friday night.
Christchurch fire
HELPING HANDS: Emergency services at the scene of a large fire in central Christchurch.
Christchurch fire
WATCHFUL: A firefighter near the scene of a large fire in central Christchurch.
Christchurch central city fire, 7 December 2012
Firefighters work to contain the blaze on the corner of High St and Tuam St, near the McKenzie & Willis site.
Christchurch central city fire, 7 December 2012
Firefighters work to contain the blaze on the corner of High St and Tuam St, near the McKenzie & Willis site.
Christchurch central city fire, 7 December 2012
HISTORY DESTROYED: The Billens building.
Christchurch central city fire, 7 December 2012
UNDER INVESTIGATION: Fire inspectors examine the scene.
Christchurch central city fire, 7 December 2012
UNDER INVESTIGATION: Fire inspectors examine the scene.

The two fires in central Christchurch on Friday could be linked, a fire investigator says.

"They have similarities, being buildings that are unoccupied and that don't have power, so there should be nobody in them," fire risk management officer Shane O'Brien said.

O'Brien is investigating the fires which destroyed the historic Billens Building on the corner of Tuam and High streets and the old Konica Minolta building on Moorhouse Ave. However, he said there was no definite evidence linking the fires at the two buildings at this stage.

The blazes happened less than an hour apart and both are being treated as suspicious.

"There was no power in either building, no hot work [welding, grinding], and both buildings were under demolition or stabilisation.

"In the Konica Minolta building on Moorhouse Ave, there was some cutting being done but the area where work was being undertaken in was not the area involved in the fire, so there's no legitimate cause for that, other than that it was deliberately lit."

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The Billens Building remained smouldering on Saturday morning and one side of Tuam St was still closed to pedestrians yesterday, while High St was still completely blocked. It was too dangerous for investigators to undertake further scene investigations.

The Christchurch Heritage Trust purchased the building in May with the intention of spending more than $4 million rescuing the brick facade.

Trust director Anna Crighton said the fire was devastating.

"Upsetting is when you burn your toast. This is devastating. Architecturally, it was one of the buildings in the area. It's just beyond repair."

She said she did not know what was going to happen to the building after the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority removed the loose bits which could endanger people and cleared the rubble off High St.

The building's fate would be decided at the trust's next board meeting.

Police are also investigating the two fires and Detective Sergeant Ross Tarawhiti said police were following lines of inquiry and were looking to speak to people who were in the area at the time.

The Press