'Just terrible': Locals mourn Wellington's Tapu Te Ranga Marae

A large live-in marae in Wellington has been destroyed by a devastating fire overnight.

Almost nothing remains of Tapu Te Ranga marae - but miraculously, everyone made it out unhurt.

The fire started at 12:30am on Sunday morning, and spread far too quickly to save the unique landmark.

"It seemed like in the flick of an eye it just spread through the whole place," James Stewart, whose late father Bruce founded the marae, told Newshub.

As the flames spread across the sky they could be seen from across the city.

"I live in Wadestown, even from way over there I could smell the smoke and it was quite strong," says Maori warden Joe McLeod.

At its peak, nineteen appliances and 70 firefighters from all over the region were doing their best to control it.

"Most of the resources were concentrated on getting water onto the fire, and preventing the spread to the north, there was quite a stiff southerly breeze behind the fire," FENZ acting senior station officer Pete Burtonwood told Newshub.

The multi-storey main building made entirely or recycled materials was completely destroyed - but one meeting building was saved.

"We are devastated, the whanau are devastated at what has happened," says Tapu te Ranga spokesperson Gabriel Tupou.

A total of 36 people were staying at Tapu te Ranga - including a scout group. The marae and 25 houses were evacuated, with 30 people spending the night in a nearby welfare support centre. The only injury was a burned hand to one of the firefighters.

"What we need to do is assess what's happened, what we're going to do now to help those in need," says Tupou.

The forty-five year old marae was founded in Island Bay by the late Bruce Stewart. When he came out of prison he wanted to provide a sanctuary for other struggling Maori, and the marae became his life's work. His son James was there last night when it went up in flames.

"You know, that's my grandmother, that building. So yeah, it's just terrible," he says.

Parts of the marae had been shut since 2015 because of compliance problems, but local MP and then-city councillor Paul Eagle says the marae had a plan for redevelopment.

"The marae was keen to resolve those, part of their master plan was to look at building housing here, for example, to get the funding that they need to rectify the issues," says Eagle.

Now it's back to square one. But the whanau say a marae is more than a building - and as long as its people are safe, it can be rebuilt.

"The mauri is still here, the kawa is still here, and the passion the whanau and community have for our whare is still strong. We've lost a building but we haven't lost its soul," says McLeod.

Fire and emergency investigators will return to the site on Monday to try and establish a cause, while a digger will work through the night to start turning the debris and check for any remaining pockets of the fire.

The marae has set up a Givealittle page to help fund the rebuild.