The European Influence

While European colonisation of New Zealand began in earnest in 1840, they had started to make an impression some 50 years before that.  Parties of sealers and whalers arrived to exploit the vast colonies of marine  mammals. Initially, whaling was done from ships, but shore stations were set up, each employing 30-60 Europeans and a similar number of Maori. By 1838, 2,000 Europeans were living in New Zealand, some 30% of them around the Bay of Islands2. Relations occasionally erupted in fire, Maori burning ships and Europeans indulging in utu by firing villages. However, not all fires were deliberate, and at least 3 of the 50 or so stations on the coast – Otakou, Moeraki and Waikokopu – succumbed to accidental blazes in the 1830s.

The early European settlers required food, and the Maori obliged. The introduction of the potato and the tinder box facilitated this. When passing through the Waikato in 1847, L Johnson reported:

“We have seen immense volumes of smoke issuing all day from the forest around Matamata and when within 2 miles of it, we distinctly saw its northern extremity on fire, which extending to the plain had ignited the dry grass and fern and even reached our track…. hundreds of trees were in flames from their roots to their topmost branches.” 

Deforestation accompanied the settlers. Masters (in 1955) estimated that in 1847 “there still remained 28 million acres of forests – and only 17 million acres remained in 1909”. That amounts to an average annual loss of 71,000 ha. A careless settler’s fire in 1853, driven by the Canterbury northwester, saw 40 km of Banks Peninsula forest go up in smoke over a three week period. The Arowhenua Bush in South Canterbury was burnt in October 1859, and then finished off with another accidental burn in January 18631. Other areas were affected, with many fires being started by bushworkers’ billies. Milling of the forests was having an influence. For instance, by 1877 there were five sawmills operating around Waimate, and steam had been introduced in 1865. Waimate was surrounded by 9,000 ha of black and white pines, totara, ngaio and broadleaf. As early as September 1863, the Canterbury had passed a Bush Fire Ordinance, designed to reduce the fire danger, but this legislation never became law. The Waimate bush was destroyed in a devastating 1878 fire that started with a musterers’ grass fire.

But it was when the settlers started clear the land they had acquired that the burning accelerated. At first, it was the tussock lands and scrub.  For example1, John Ackland was exploring the area that would become his Mount Peel Station in September 1855. After crossing the Rangitata River above Peel Forest, he and a companion started firing the tussock and grass. He estimated that their first fires swept 20,235 ha of countryside, and could be seen 97 km away. Four days later, their fires turned back to Peel Forest where they burnt the river flats near the Lynn Stream.

Following the end of the Land Wars in the 1860s, confiscation and the Native Lands Act 1865 facilitated transfer of Maori land to settlers. In advertisements2 of the 1860s, the Auckland Provincial Council promised each immigrant a ‘free farm’ of 40 acres. Too often, these turned out to be inaccessible sections of heavy bush and scrub. The bait of free land attracted thousands of immigrants from Britain. With the easier country gone, settlers began the more difficult task of breaking in bush to transform it into farmland. 

The area of improved pasture land more than quadrupled during the 1870s. Most of the land clearance by Europeans took place from 1870 to 1920. The list of significant fires reflects this.

Management and Legislation

Concerns were being expressed in the 1860s about the devastation of forests and the dwindling of native bird populations. In October 1868, Canterbury MP Thomas Potts made what was probably the first conservation speech in Parliament, asking the Government ‘to take steps to ascertain the present condition of the forests of the Colony with view to their better conservation’. He was supported by James Hector, director of the Colonial Museum, who reported that over 20% of forest had been cleared between 1830 and 1868. In the summer of 1873–74, Prime Minister Julius Vogel toured the South Island and was disturbed to see the damage caused by the milling and burning of native forest. He made several attempts to pass laws controlling deforestation. However, some of the Provinces had taken exception to Vogel’s plans  to set aside a public estate of 6,000,000 acres that could be security for development loan of £10,000.000. The ‘Provincialists’ in Parliament blocked the grand scheme, and threw out his conservation bills. Vogel got his revenge when  he abolished the provincial governments in 1876. They were replaced by a confused multitude of boards – road, rabbit, drainage, harbour – and borough, county and city councils that persisted to the late 20th century.  

Nevertheless, the New Zealand Forests Act 1874 was passed, and was largely concerned with regulation of the sale of native timber. To assist in this, it allowed for the creation of State Forests. The first Commissioner of State Forests was also Commissioner for Land. In 1876, Capt J Campbell Walker, of the Indian Forest Service, accepted a temporary appointment (1876-77) as Conservator to inspect forests and report on establishment of a State Forests Dept. In 1881, 200,000 hectares were set aside under the 1877 Land Act for the preservation of timber and other regulations were imposed on loggers and sawmillers.

Following ongoing concern regarding the conservation of forests, the New Zealand State Forests Act was passed in 1885, with accompanying Regulations in 1886. These made provision for the requisitioning of men for firefighting (which is still in our legislation) and an offender, guilty of either lighting a fire in a State forest or which threatened one, was ‘liable to a penalty not exceeding £20’. Thomas Kirk was appointed Chief Conservator of State Forests, reporting to the Commissioner of State Forests. He immediately inspected the main forests and reported on ‘Native Forests and the State of the Timber Trade’. It was planned that under the Act of 1885, the revenue from the harvesting of indigenous forests would be placed in a dedicated “State Forests Account” from which the costs of plantation forestry could be drawn ie. the intention was to replace the lost indigenous forests. The legislation also offered subsidies to local government for establishing plantations. However, within two years, funding was withdrawn by the next Government as an economy measure. Once again, the brief interest in forestry did not endure, and the State Forest Department was disestablished in 1887. Interestingly, the Chief Conservator of Forests seems to have continued, and Prof. Kirk, toured the Auckland area in April 1888 to report on the losses from the Puhipuhi kauri forest fire.

From 1887 until 1892 the Crown Lands Department was responsible for forestry, and then the Lands and Survey Department. However, the first Conservator of Forests, appointed in 1896, saw only a small role for the government in plantation forestry. Government forestry was also seen to be in conflict with settlement aspirations, and the legislation failed after three years. Official recognition of the enormous destruction of forests by both accidental and intentional burning came in the 1896 Annual Report of the Lands and Survey Department which stated that the native forest resource was not unlimited and ‘it would seem to be a wise policy to replant these (burnt) areas with useful timber selected for their ability to withstand fires’. Plantations of exotics were established from the mid-1890s onwards, and concern for their safety against fire again appeared in Annual Reports. It was suggested that rangers be appointed to patrol boundaries during the dry season, telephone connections be established for reporting fires, and strong vehicles for carrying water tanks be provided together with bucket pumps, hand pumps, suction hoses and hand tools. 

In 1908 there was an amendment to the Act which enabled the Government to make regulations ‘preventing the danger and spread of fire in State Forest’. In the private sector, counties were given the power to establish fire brigades and appoint fire inspectors under 1903 and 1908 Counties (Amendment) Acts. Masters et. al.(1955) estimated that in 1847 ‘there still remained 28 million acres of forest out of a total land area, inclusive of water surfaces, of 66 million acres’ – only 17 million acres remained in 19094. Forest fire losses in the 25 years up to 1920 averaged 40,000 ha per annum. 

During the period from 1874 to 1919, the administration of Crown-owned forests was extremely fragmented, and hampered by lack of interest by high-level administrators, documented in the report of the 1909 Commission on Forestry5. It examined hundreds of witnesses and issued a report amounting to nine hundred printed pages. A Royal Commission sat in 1913, and warning after warning was issued against the exhaustion of our timber supplies. The 1914-1918 war impeded developments, but on 5 October 1917 Prime Minister Massey announced that he would set up a special department of forestry

Section 59 of the Land Laws Amendment Act 1913 prohibited the lessee or licensee of any pastoral lands from burning snow tussock, and prohibited them burning of any other tussock except in July, August and September.  A 1922 amendment replaced this with a general prohibition on the burning of tussock without the consent of the Land Board.  A similar provision survives today through Section 15 of the Crown Pastoral Land Act 1998.

Another factor recognised as being of significance to forests was the introduction of mammals from overseas. These included: possum, 1837; wallaby, 1874; rabbit, 1838; hare, 1851; mice, black, and Norway rats, from about 1800 or earlier; stoat, 1884; weasel, 1884; ferret, 1867; cat, ca.1800; pig, 1773; red deer, 1861; goat, 1773.

Organised Fire Fighting

The new immigrants in the Wellington area had a rough start. On the night of 25 May 1840, fire broke out at night in Cornish Row, Petone, and 14 cottages were lost, along with the new settlers’ possessions. Rehoused, they then experienced their first earthquake. Many moved to Wellington, but on 19 November 1842, a fire swept along the beach front, destroying as many as 40 buildings. After this major fire, many changed from building raupo on slab huts to using brick and stone. Larger earthquakes in 1848 and 1855 resulted a change to wooden buildings, and this set the pattern for the future. The fire menace continued, and there were major conflagrations to follow. Legislation to give protection from fire was passed by the Provincial Council in its 1856-7 session, requiring each householder to keep two water buckets, and to supply them should a fire break out. 

As with other cities, only the insurance companies had any real firefighting equipment. This was normally a manually operated pumping machine, but it was reserved for fighting fires at premises insured with that particular company. Only big fires in central business areas would attract all available insurance machines, and citizens would be enlisted to work the long cranking arms to pump water. Payment was often both beer and money. Help was also received from organised military fire parties if a military garrison was stationed in the town, or the navy was visiting. In Wellington, the Provincial Government ordered the removal of a manual machine from the Northern Assurance Co. to the Police Station, and it remained under the control of the Police.

The first volunteer fire brigade was formed in Auckland in 1854, followed by volunteer brigades in Christchurch (1860), Dunedin (1861) and Wellington (1865). As with others to come, these were usually as a reaction to a bad fire. The early brigades struggled; most of those formed up to 1920 resigned en masse in protest at least once during their existence. It was 1867 when the first Municipal Corporation Act was passed containing provision for borough councils to adopt measures for fire protection and the setting up of fire brigades in boroughs. There were similar acts in 1876 and 1900, but it was not until the Fire Brigades Act 1906 that legislation specific to fire protection was finally adopted. The United Fire Brigades Association  had been formed in Christchurch in 1878, and from 1879 had been working on a ‘Fire Brigades Bill’. It was defeated in Parliament in 1882, with some members equating firemen with sports players in as far as there was no levy to fund them either. There was no support from fire insurance companies:

‘We do not want you to interfere with us, or to put out fires. We would rather have a fire or two, so as to induce people to insure. We object to you meddling with us in what is purely a matter of contract. If people want to insure, we will do it for them; but we do not want you to force us to pay money in order to save people who are not provident’.3

It appears that the colonial government took so little interest in firefighting that the only statistics3 it collected were an annual listing of fire brigades with the number of officers and men attached to each, which for 31 December 1885 showed 52 brigades with 212 officers and 870 men. There was no growth in numbers by 1889 (UFBA return). The first steam engines were bought by Wellington and Christchurch in 1865, and the other large cities acquired these over the next two decades1. The Wellington steamer was bought by the Harbour Board, and it was not until 1900 that the Municipal Brigade owned their own. By 1886, that Brigade had good mains pressure, but were criticised for inept use of it. Horse-drawn manual engines and hose reels were typical. The adoption of motor engines started in the big cities about 1906. The Fire Brigades Acts 1906 and 1907 provided for fire boards and districts, but by 1919 only 31 had been created. In 1908, Wellington City Council  argued to retain municipal control on the grounds that fire boards allowed Government interference in local affairs. It was not until 1 July 1926 that control was passed to the Wellington Fire Board6.

There are many instances of brigades lending assistance – often traveling by train – at fire disasters, but principally to assist with property protection. In contrast with the urban areas, any organisation of firefighting in  the rural areas was done on an ad hoc basis. The settlers fought hard to defend their properties. Farming families depended on neighbours to help them in times of trouble. Vegetation fire suppression was by dry firefighting, and the account of the 1908 Eastbourne fire provides a good description of the techniques. Remarkably, few lives were lost in  bushfires, suggesting that the settlers were familiar with fire, and the hazards associated with it.3 They were not in awe of it, and were prepared to band together  to face the fire and fight, rather than fleeing. 

A poem that appeared in a 1894 edition of the Hawera & Normanby Star illustrates the settlers’ attitude and hardiness.  

Clearing the Bush

Arnold3 provides a description on how the settlers did this. Bush clearing began with underscrubbing, the cutting of all undergrowth and creepers with bill-hooks and light axes, work with which women and children often helped. Properly done this formed the tinder for the burn; badly done, small growth and creepers flourished in the fallen timber, resisting rather than helping the burn. Next the standing bush was felled and left to dry. Underscrubbing and felling were done during winter and spring, stopping in time to allow the last timber felled to dry before the burn. Then, on a suitable day in late summer or early autumn, came the burn. 

The timing of the burn was a fiercely debated issue. February was the most favoured month, but fearing a wet February many a settler was tempted by a dry spell in January. But January was grass-seed harvest, and an escape could put the neighbour’s crop at risk, or fire his felled bush early. When a poor January burn was followed by a hot dry February, feelings could run high. The burn was lit once the dew had lifted on a day with a steady breeze in the right direction. Ignition would be in a line, to provide a good wide even face of fire across the section. A good burn was a dramatic occasion, with great flames leaping upward into dense masses of smoke, the roaring and crackling punctuated by the occasional crash of a falling branch or standing tree. But with an unexpected wind change everything could quickly go desperately wrong, as happened in 1885-86. When the fire had passed cocksfoot and clover seed were broadcast among the stumps and logs. Over the following years ‘stumping’ and ‘logging up’ steadily cleared the remaining debris.

In Manawatu County, the area of grass land went from 4.6% in 1878 to 52% in 1908. The corresponding figures for Waipawa County were 12.9% to 65.2%. In anarticle following the devastating fires of 1898,  the Hawke’s Bay Herald wrote:  “Throughout scores of miles, in what was once known as the Seventy-mile and the Ninety-mile Bush, between Masterton in the Wellington district and Hampden on the Ruataniwha plain, bush has been destroyed where the timber was of ten times greater value than the land on which it grew”. What was left was the Forty Mile Bush, and this would disappear with the next savage fire season of 1908. However, this summer of 1908 was significantly different: where fires appeared in the same areas as before, these areas were no longer the frontier districts. Farms were typically 100 acres in size; about half the population of New Zealand of 950,000 lived in rural areas; and men were prepared to band together to take the offensive against fires rather that just desperately defend their homes. This genesis of rural firefighting was appearing in the 1898 fires and is emphasised  in the newspaper reports of the 1908 fires. 

There were still a few frontier districts in 1908, such as around Raetihi in the Waimarino, where little could be done to contain fires. The huge 1918 Raetihi fire marked the end of the period that had been dominated by settlers’ blazes setting large parts of the country on fire at the same time. As a final act, the Raetihi catastrophe was almost an anomaly, as it was the sole major blaze of that season. There was little bush left to burn, so fire ignitions in rural areas would have also been fewer. In spite of recurring drought periods, extensive wildfires were to become a rarity in the following 30 years.

Significant Fires

Brooking has said “the transformation from forest cover to grass in New Zealand was one of the most spectacular, most radical transformations ever anywhere in the world”. Wildfires were the cause of this transformation. There is a list of fires over the period 1876-1892, compiled from the Australasian Insurance and Banking Records at Rollo Arnold’s request, that is held by Victoria University, Wellington. A complete list of significant fires, recorded in the newspapers for the period, is given below. Reconstructing the size of these fires is difficult. Enveloping the quoted place names can work in an example such as the 1890 Taranaki fire (26,600 ha). However, In a busy season, such as 1898, there were multiple fire starts in a region, and uncertainty as to whether the resulting fires remained distinct or merged. Furthermore, as the fires moved into the hinterlands, there are few place names to base size estimates on. Some guidance might be thought to be provided by Pawson and Brooking of depiction of bush cover at the start of 1880, and what remained in 1910. Some of this bush cover would have been consumed by milling; however, this loss would have been minor compared with wildfires. The Waimarino district would seem to offer a prime example for this application. Milling started about 1900, and the first mention of wild fire in this district is in January 1908, when the district was still a frontier then. The Main Trunk railway was completed there later that year. Assuming the bush of 1880 was still intact, then the month-long fire of 1908 would have needed to destroy 227,000 ha of bush to match what was gone by 1910. The fire  is unlikely to be of this size, and the conclusion is that most of the loss of bush in that 30 year period throughout New Zealand was due to fires that were not recorded in newspapers. 

  1. 31.1.1860: concern about settlers’ clearing fires in Wellington Province, and a call for a fire brigade to be formed.

  2. 17.1.1863: an early court case seeking damages from a fire that burnt over 3 months.

  3. 14.12.1864: Southland burns and Invercargill threatened. Brigade at work.

  4. 12.2.1867: Hokitika threatened by bush fire. Brigade praised for its actions.

  5. 11-14.3.1867: New Plymouth district, from Oakura to Waitara, a distance of 18 miles, burns under SE gale; 8 houses lost

  6. 14.2.1870: wind blows up a smouldering fire around Carterton, Wairarapa. A mill, 5 houses and a bridge lost.

  7. 8.2.1871: extensive bushfires north and east of Invercargill; 2 houses lost.

  8. 20.2.1871: fire driven by SE gale in a mining area of the Coromandel; several huts burnt and batteries threatened. Rain extinguished the blaze.

  9. 30.11.1871: large bush fire set by baking mishap in Katakati; 2 Maori die from burns.

  10. 2.1872: in a forerunner of seasons to come, there was a widespread drought, and reports of several destructive bush fires throughout the country around the same time. In Marlborough, a fire that started in the Awatere valley went to the coast  as far south as the Flaxbourne River. This could easily been over 20,000 ha. In Canterbury, about 12,000 ha was burnt on Acton Station, and there was a grass fire in the Heathcote Valley near Christchurch. A fire near Stoke’s Pt, Auckland burnt about 10,000 ha. In Central Otago, a hotel and bridge were destroyed. Whangarei had a serious bushfire. There were fires in the Wairarapa at  Carterton and near Greytown. At the latter, four new, and some old, houses were destroyed, along with a couple of businesses. Some 1600 ha of land was burnt. There were fires in the Ninety Mile Bush, at Waipawa, Waipukurau and Wallingford, and also in the Coromandel

  11. 30.11.1872: Invercargill, 3 houses lost.

  12. 24.12 1872: bush fire at Tapanui, Southland. Burnt for two weeks.

  13. 28.12.1872: bush fires around Dunedin.

  14. 18.1 1876: bush fire in Reefton; nine houses lost.

  15. Waimate 1878.

  16. 9.1.1879: Carterton surrounded by a bush fire, and almost destroyed. Illustrates hazard of wooden roof shingles.

  17. 2.4.1881: huge bush fire from Wellington to Makara coast.

  18. 21.10.1881: Otago Peninsula burns; house and cheese factory lost.

  19. 22.12.1882: big bush fire between Fielding and Bunnythorpe, in the Manawatu.

  20. 15.1.1883: Carterton Fire Brigade quits due to lack of public appreciation.

  21. 1885- 86 Season: extensive fires throughout the whole country. The Taranaki town of Stratford was almost obliterated.

  22. 5 .1.1887: remote area of Lake Wakatipu; about 4,000 acres of timber lost; two dwellings  and huts destroyed.

  23. 13.2.1887: the cigar that set an extensive fire in grass and bush east of Martinborough, Wairarapa.

  24. 22.2.1887: wind-driven fires in Wellington, Wairarapa, Seventy Mile Bush and Manawatu. Palmerston North was in extreme danger..

  25. 1887- 88 Season: the village of Norsewood is destroyed by fire.

  26. 26.1.1889: Coromandel bush fire destroys two houses.

  27. 7.3.1889: Port Hills and Oxford burning in Canterbury. A house was destroyed at Akaroa. At the same time, There was a large fire at Cooper’s Creek near Ashburton. 

  28. 14.3.1889: Dunedin lost a house in what would now be called a rural-urban interface fire, and there were several bushfires around the city and on the Peninsula. In Southland, four buildings were destroyed at Oreti Plains, and there were fires in the Seventy Mile Bush and Pukekohe. 

  29. 10.2.1890: a large fire, stretching at least 11 km,  raged in the Buller and Hope Valleys.

  30. 3.3.1890: there was a huge fire, driven by a SE wind and extending over 48 km from Stratford to Sentry Hill near New Plymouth, in Taranaki. Damage was expected to exceed that of the 1886 Stratford fire. The fires were moderating by the 10th. Estimated 26,600 ha  burnt.

  31. 27.12.1890: Canterbury was beset with bush fires.

  32. 10.1.1891: four houses lost around Masterton to a bush fire.

  33. 29 March 1894: a bush fire at Mauriceville, Wairarapa, destroyed 3 houses and 3 sheds, and a house was lost further north at Eketahuna.

  34. 2.3.1896: a fire south of Dannevirke destroyed a mill, two houses and huts at Tahoraiti. The fire spread to Norsewood, where six or seven houses were lost, and Ormondville, where a sawmill was destroyed. At the same time, a fire was destroying property further north, including two road bridges, at Ashley Clinton  and Makeretu. The westerly gale was driving the fire in an 18 km front towards Tikokino, southern Hawkes Bay.

  35. 31.12.1896: bush fires around Carterton and in the Seventy Mile Bush destroyed 9 houses, 9 mills, and numerous outbuildings. Many settlers received burns.

  36. January,1897: Drought prevailed in many parts of the country. There were several large bush fires around Whangamata and on the Coromandel Peninsula. Central Taranaki and Canterbury were again under threat, particularly around Oxford and up the Waimakariri. Fires were burning even in the swamp lands around Hamilton. However, it was the Wairarapa that got hit the hardest, with houses and other property being destroyed. This extensive activity would be a precursor to the huge 1897-98 season as the period of low rainfall  continued.

  37. 1897- 98 Season: many large fires, mostly in central NZ, with the township of Pahiatua severely damaged.

  38. January 1900: there were large fires in the Coromandel and Gisborne districts.

  39. 10.1.1902: fires on the West Coast

  40. 10.1.1903: large fires around Morere, East Coast.

  41. 15.1.1905: the Collingwood district, ravaged in 1898, was again hit by bushfires.

  42. January 1907: there were large fires in Southland; rain put these fires out, after 18,000 ha had been burnt, with significant loss of property. A bush fire destroyed houses near Westport. Under a strong westerly, the Caitlins district burns, and there were fires further north around Dunedin.  The reporter lamented the loss of bush on Mt Cargill. A sawmill and five houses were lost in Canterbury, with the Oxford area again hard hit, a repetition of 1898 being feared. Banks Peninsula and the Cashmere Hills were burnt, and there were extensive fires around Ashburton.

  43. 16.3.1907: fire west of Eltham, Taranaki, in an area bypassed by the large 1898 fire. Rifle shots were used to summon help!

  44. 1907- 08 Season: an extensive season ensued from a prolonged drought. Organised rural firefighting occurs in many established areas. There was one fatality among the firefighters.

  45. 11.2.1911: a dry spell had fires around Auckland Province, and Waikato peatland posing a problem.

  46. 7.12.1911: fires on East Coast.

  47. 11.2.1913: extensive fires in Northland.

  48. 28.3.1913: Motu Valley, East Coast, burns. Fire reported to have spread at 6 kph. 

  49. 16.1.1914: Coromandel town of Te Aroha threatened.

  50. 17.3.1917: 1,000 acres of bush and sawmill destroyed north of a dry Wellington.

  51. 19.3.1918: Raetihi. Three people died, and the total area burnt would have been very large. The gale that drove the fire to destroy Raetihi saw the roadside between Taihape and Mangaweka ablaze, and also caused a large burn near Wanganui.

1. G McLean, New Zealand Tragedies, Fires and Firefighting, Grantham House, 1992
2. K. Sinclair, A History of New Zealand, Pelican, 1959
3. R. Arnold, New Zealand’s Burning, ‘Victoria University Press, 1994
4. Neill Cooper, History of Forest Fires in New Zealand.
5. B.J. Swale, An Abbreviated History of Forestry in New Zealand.
6. R. Monigatti, From Bells to Blazes, ABD Clark, 1965.
7. Historical Branch, Dept of Internal Affairs, New Zealand Historical Atlas, David Bateman Ltd, 1997