Queanbeyan's historic Catholic church came frighteningly close to destruction this afternoon, after a fire ripped through the building and caused "significant" damage to a number of rooms.
The fire was caused by charcoal discarded in a rubbish bin in the sacristy of St Raphael's Church on Lowe Street about 4pm.
Firefighters rushed to the scene and found heavy plumes of smoke emanating from the building.
Fire and Rescue NSW Queanbeyan duty officer Kernin Lambert said the church was locked, and firefighters had to force their way inside.
"Firefighters wearing breathing apparatus discovered quite an advanced fire, and it was beginning to take hold and spread," Mr Lambert said.
"Initially the conditions were quite bad for us, very, very thick black smoke, zero visibility, we had difficulty locating the fire," he said.
The fire was reaching a "critical" stage, Mr Lambert said, threatening to flash over into the main church building.
Firefighters were able to contain the blaze, but not before it gutted the the sacristy and several other rooms to the rear of the church.
He said the fire would have been devastating if it had started at night, or if firefighters had not acted so quickly.
"If there had have been any delay in notifying fire services, the fire would definitely have spread into the main body of the church," he said.
"If that had occurred we would have had a very, very significant fire that would have been very difficult to stop."
He said the staff were "shocked" and "upset" by the damage to the historic building.
"I think they were surprised at how quickly this fire took hold, it was developing quite rapidly."