A 50-year-old woman has been charged with arson after two houses in the small Wairarapa town of Mauriceville burned down overnight.
Police and fire were called to the first blaze about 10.30pm on Wednesday. The next house, less than 100 metres away, burned down about 5.30am on Thursday.
The two fires have come as a shock for the small rural community. One of the houses was owned by the woman in custody, the other by community stalwart Corrinne Oliver.
On Wednesday night Oliver, like many others, arrived at the scene of the initial fire. There she found the home’s owner, watching the smouldering ruins.
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“I asked her if she had anywhere to stay and she said no. So I invited her over to have a cup of tea and spend the night,” Oliver said.
The two went back to Oliver’s place, across the road from Mauriceville School. After a quick visit from police, they went to bed, with the visitor in the sleepout at the back of the house.
Early the next morning, Oliver woke to the sound of a smoke alarm.
“I thought [she] was cooking toast and had set the fire alarm off, so I went downstairs to go check on her.”
She saw the front door of the house wide open and a fire in full swing. She quickly escaped, as did husband Bruce and daughter Chance.
“If the fire alarm hadn’t gone off, we would have died,” she said. “No question.”
The next day neighbours gathered in disbelief at the house where Oliver had lived for nearly 27 years.
She pointed out precious mementoes, most of them barely discernable in the thick grey ash.
Aside from a pair of boots and the dressing gown she fled the house in, she lost everything.
“It’s just surreal,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes. “I’m the sort of person who’s always helped people … I just can’t understand why you’d do this to someone.
“That stuff is irreplaceable, but at least we’ve got each other.”
The arrested woman, who was understood to have been caught behind the school, was a homeowner in the town, though none of the locals present on Thursday knew her.
“I’d never seen her before in my life,” Oliver said.
Police confirmed a 50-year-old woman from Mauriceville had been arrested on arson-related charges. They were still investigating the fires.
The arrested woman will appear in the Masterton District Court on Friday.