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Fire burning for 2nd day disrupts center of New Zealand city

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A fire burning for a second day at a convention center that was under construction in New Zealand's largest city was causing more disruption Wednesday and casting doubt on whether the building would be ready to host a meeting of world leaders in 2021.

Officials said a mixture of bitumen, straw-like material and plywood in the roof cavity of the seven-story structure was continuing to burn and firefighters could not properly access the area. They planned to let the fire burn itself out later Wednesday while preventing it spreading further.

"The plan is to sacrifice the roof, and in doing so allow the debris from the roof to drop down," Ron Devlin, the area commander for Fire and Emergency New Zealand, told reporters.

The agency said more than 100 firefighters and support staff continued to battle the blaze and that by early afternoon, about 70 percent of the roof had burned itself out.

City workers were told to avoid downtown Auckland if they could, and many buildings and some streets remained closed.

The New Zealand International Convention Centre, which was being developed by SkyCity Entertainment Group, was scheduled to open next year and host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in 2021.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff told the New Zealand Herald newspaper that the damage caused by not only the fire but also the millions of liters of water pumped onto it was extensive.

"You have got to believe that has put in jeopardy the ability of the convention center to host the APEC meeting," he said, adding that the city would work with the government to come up with a Plan B and that Auckland would still host the meeting whether the convention center was ready or not.

Ross Taylor, the chief executive of construction company Fletcher Building, told reporters it believes the fire started on the roof where workers were using blowtorches on bitumen to seal roof joints. He said it was too early to determine the extent of the damage or how much it would delay the project, but that the company remained committed to completing it.

"A day can be a long time," Taylor said. "It was only yesterday you could see the momentum we had on the site, you could see when we were going to finish, how it was going. And it's just very disappointing."

Work began on the site in 2015 and has been behind schedule and over budget, costing more than 700 million New Zealand dollars ($450 million). The finished complex is expected to accommodate more than 3,000 people at conferences and includes a 300-room hotel.

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