A stray lighter minus the safety clip could have destroyed what Lian Kawhena holds most dear. But instead, a neighbour's visiting relative saw the fire and kicked the front door in to rescue her children.
"We could have all been dead really, all the kids," Kawhena said outside the blackened bedroom of her state house in Fairfield, Hamilton on Monday.
It could have been much worse but Fairfield man Lorenza Hawkins, 46, had the anniversary day off work and visited his cousin who lives next door to Kawhena.
"I was just standing over there by the truck having a smoke. I was looking that way and saw flames coming out the window."
The freezing worker ran to Kawhena's front door, kicked it in and got the family out.
"After I got them out, I took the garden hose in there and tried to put it out. I just stayed in there till the fire brigade came, trying to save as much of their gear as I could."
The incident is another example of what is proving to be a major cause of house fires in New Zealand.
Over the past five years the New Zealand Fire Service has extinguished more than 200 blazes sparked by children under five fiddling with lighters, matches or candles. Information on the fire service's website said the service attended over 3500 house fires each year.
Lighters were by far the most common cause of fires started by children.
The damage amounts to more than $13 million with injuries to 47 people ranging from minor to critical.
For the reluctant hero, it was just one of those situations - right place, right time.
"Lucky we weren't at work or else we wouldn't have seen any of it," said Hawkins. "I just did what anybody would do."
Chartwell fire station officer David O'Donnell responded to the Sare Cres incident at 9am on Monday.
If it had not been for the quick action of Hawkins he said they might have been dealing with a loss of life instead of minor property damage.
Kawhena had lived at the address with her daughters - Kavaeha-Leigh, 2, Oceania, 4, Cheyenne, 5, and Breeana, 11 - and son, Dominick, 15, for two years.
She was in the shower when she heard the smoke alarm sound.
They often beep, on and off, so she thought it was malfunctioning.
But the sound continued.
"I poked my head out the door and the kids were in the hallway," she said.
"I finished my shower, came out and the neighbours had broken down the door and pulled the kids out."
She said Oceania ignited the fire after she found Dominick's lighter, minus the safety clip, that was left on the couch.
"My kids are my life. It's made me realise, forget the little stuff, they could have been severely burnt. They could have died. We could be so much worse than we are now, and if it wasn't for the neighbour, I don't like to think how much worse it would have been."
The family is now at a motel, until Housing New Zealand repairs the damage.
Fire service investigation and arson reduction manager Peter Wilding said there had been at least seven significant fires in the past few months caused by children under five playing with lighters or matches. The toll included one death and two serious burn injuries.
"Tragically these fires are starting when very young children come across lighters left lying around by adults," he said.
"Even lighters considered child resistant are not child proof and many small children can still competently operate them.
"You wouldn't leave a loaded gun lying around, so put your lighters and matches in a safe place where little children cannot get to them."
Some children can also develop an unhealthy attraction to fire.
The fire service runs a free fire awareness and intervention programme where firefighters work with children to overcome this "dangerous fascination".
Kawhena said the close call has made her "a hell of a lot more cautious".
- Waikato Times
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