Hearth timber behind Hamilton East fire

MATT BOWEN
Last updated 12:11 19/06/2014
ham east fire
CHRIS HILLOCK/Fairfax NZ

FIRE HAZARD: Hamilton Central Fire Station officer Dave Gunn checks for hot spots after timber beneath a hearth set fire to this Hamilton East home.

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One of hundreds of old Waikato homes had a potentially lethal surprise hiding beneath the fire place for its new inhabitants.

Yvonne Atkins, 24, her partner, Leslie Laing, 25, and their four children aged from 11-months to six years old moved into the Nixon St house in Hamilton East a fortnight ago.

This morning, after a night relishing the open fire, the house nearly burnt down.

Atkins said her father dropped her children and some firewood off on Wednesday night.

The landlord had given the fire place the all clear so they lit it and relished the raw Winter heat.

The children were put to bed about 8.30pm but Atkins was up till 2.30am. Laing was elsewhere.

''I seen smoke under the tile bit of the fire place in front,'' Atkins said.''I didn't know what was smoking... I grabbed a pot of water, enough to put out the embers.''

She went to sleep until her baby woke at 5am.

''I got up, walked from my room into [the kitchen] wondering why it was all full of smoke. I thought it was from when I put [the embers] out at 2.30am.''

She tended her baby then opened the doors and windows.

''By the time I went back to our room it was full of smoke. I thought, ok I'll go and sit in with the kids. I was on the bed and all I could hear was this crackling sound, and a tink tink tink, like someone was chucking something at the side of the house.''

Atkins looked outside and saw an orange glow in the dim dawn light.

She went outside and saw flames licking up the side of the house from the hearth.

''I was like what the f*** and grabbed my phone.''

While the fire fighters responded she tried to put it out herself.

The Hamilton Central Fire Station crew got it under control and a fire investigator exposed the culprit - the timber framing holding up the hearth. Since the house was built, perhaps in the 1950s, the framing has heated and cooled to the point where it's extremely dry and flammable.

''We call it pyrophoric action,'' station officer Dave Gunn said. ''Every time you light the fire the timber heats up, cools down, heats up cools down - it's been going on for years. It becomes light like balsa wood and just ignites. They could have lost the whole house.''

The sole smoke alarm had no battery power and Gunn said they would install new ones for the family.

There are many houses constructed in the same way and Gunn warned people to be vigilant and make sure smoke alarms work.

Mother and baby were both treated for smoke inhalation.

Meanwhile, emergency services responded to a call out at Paewhenua Rd house near Otorohanga around 2.20am, Fire Service spokeswoman Nicole Bernard said.

When three trucks form the Otorohanga Volunteer Fire Brigade arrived the building was engulfed in flames, she said.

The occupants were not home and it took more than an hour to get the blaze under control.

A fire investigator is due at the scene this morning to determine the cause.

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- Waikato Times

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