A passer-by may have saved two lives and averted a fire at one of New Plymouth's historic wooden buildings yesterday.
The woman called the fire brigade when she noticed flames at the base of a supporting pole under The Mill in Courtenay St about 7.40am yesterday.
Unbeknown to her, two young people were sleeping rough under the building.
Police were stunned when they arrived to find the two youths, sound asleep and totally oblivious that their lives were on the line just moments before.
"We found two guys out to it. They didn't even wake up to the fire brigade arriving.
"They would be feeling fairly lucky by now," Sergeant Ross Wright said.
They are treating the case as arson and are seeking information from the public.
"Someone's obviously gathered debris and put it against this massive pole and set it alight," Mr Wright said.
If the fire had taken hold, the two youths, who were toward the back of the bottom of the building, would have been trapped.
"They could have suffered serious harm if the fire had gone up," Mr Wright said.
It is believed the pair were "squeegee bandits", who earn their living by cleaning car windscreens at traffic lights.
To add insult to injury, one of the pair had his white Nike high- topped shoes stolen while he slept - possibly by the same person who lit the fire, Mr Wright said.
The Mill owner Chris Simkin said he intended to block off the area, Mr Wright said.
"We don't want people sleeping under buildings," he said.
The three-storey Mill, built in the 1860s, is almost entirely timber and firefighters would have had a major battle on their hands if a fire had taken hold.
For years a popular restaurant and bar, the establishment has been unoccupied for some time.
Anyone who witnessed people acting suspiciously in the area is asked to contact Constable Kirk Sanger at New Plymouth police station.
- Taranaki Daily News
Have you signed up to stop smoking?