Management and Legislation

On  September 1919, the State Forest Service was separated from the Lands and Survey Department, and became its own entity called the Forestry Department. The first Director of Forestry,  Leon MacIntosh Ellis, a Canadian, was appointed. Eventually, a Head Office in Wellington, with seven regional conservancies were established for administration. Skilled staff were slowly recruited, the first new professionals being mostly graduates from Edinburgh.

The Director reported to the first Commissioner of State Forests, Sir Francis Dillon Bell, that ‘during the past generation, two and a half million acres of virgin timberland has been destroyed, and in its place is useless barren waste – North Auckland, Thames, the central backbone of the North island, the Nelson and Marlborough Provinces and the eastern slopes of the Southern Alps’. The first statement of forest policy, from Sir Francis in 1919 which included management of indigenous forests for sustained yield and maintenance of protection forests, was augmented in 1920 by Ellis’s innovative policy statement, the basic argument of which was that New Zealand’s timber supply problems must be solved by action in New Zealand. Bell’s policies brought him into conflict with the sawmillers who fought fiercely against his efforts to control exports. He  rightly became known as the ‘Father of Forestry’ in New Zealand.

Bell ceased to be Commissioner of State Forests in 1922, and was briefly Prime Minister in 1925. He maintained his interest in forestry and conservation, and defended his policy which largely was formulated by the 1913 Royal Commission. Ellis drafted a new act, Forests Act 1921/22, which was to last until 1949. It incorporated further improvements for the protection of State Forests: no unauthorised fires were permitted ‘within any State Forest or within 20 chains of any State Forest.’ ‘Closed’ fire seasons could be declared – meaning that permits were required for fires – and the State could set up Fire Districts and include adjacent private land. By 1930 there were 40, covering 800,000 ha, that had been gazetted. In 1925, Ellis presented his first 5-yearly review of the Operation of National Policy. In that period, dedicated State Forest increased to 7.5 million acres (3,035,145 ha), State plantations had grown to 63,000 acres (25,495 ha), non-state planting had responded to encouragement, and State forest receipts had increased significantly. On the negative side, survey estimated that there were just 5.6 million acres (2,266,242 ha) of merchantable indigenous forest, with 39,000 million board feet (92,029,600 cubic metres) of softwood and 23,000 million board feet ( 54,273,867 cubic metres) of hardwoods, three-quarters in State forest. Little of the land still in forest following logging showed evidence of regrowth of timber-producing species.

Annual fire protection conferences were instigated. In spite of the fire protection measures contained in the Forests Act, losses from fire continued unabated, particularly in private forests. Annual Reports of the Director of Forestry 1922-27 showed2 that the numbers of fires reported for that period averaged 239 annually for the loss of 10,400 ha, 500 ha of which was State owned. Losses of virgin indigenous amounted to 14% of the total forest lost, the remainder being cutover forest and scrubland. By the early 1940s (Annual reports 1940/45) losses had fallen to an average of 5,800 ha annually of mixed forest cover (1100 ha of State forest from an average of 30 fires annually). 

In the late 1920’s, New Zealand was struck by the world-wide economic depression which resulted in widespread unemployment. Afforestation was seen by Government as constructive relief work and an increase in planted areas during the period 1929 – 31 resulted. Ellis resigned in 1928 and was succeeded by E. Phillips Turner, who managed to maintain the impetus for afforestation despite opposition. State exotic forest plantings reached 300,000 acres ( 121,406 ha) in 1931, four years before the target date of 1935, and private plantings totalled 400,000 acres ( 161,874 ha). In a letter in 1934, responding to political pressure, Ellis reviewed the progress that forestry had achieved. By 1931 the economic position was so bad that, but for determined opposition from its new Director, A.D. McGavock, the Forest Service would have been abolished and re-absorbed into the Department of Lands and Survey. During the his directorship, the area of permanent State forest doubled from 2.1 (849,841 ha) to 4.8 million acres (1,942,493 ha ) and the total area of land under Forest Service control rose to 7.8 million acres ( 3,156,551 ha ), 12% of New Zealand. 

Under C.M. Smith’s influence, species other than radiata pine were given a greater role. The Forest Service commenced trials of extraction of indigenous logs using new techniques with tractors to replace the destructive ground-hauling with cables prevalent until then, with the hope of leaving a more intact forest structure for regeneration. In 1939, Alexander Robert Entrican, an engineer in forest products, was appointed Director of Forests. He gave new directions and impetus to state forestry, but from the start his efforts were hampered by shortage of skilled staff, and the Second World War. The first successes came from Waipa State Sawmill where, not only did the production help meet critical war demands for wood, but new equipment and methods developed or adopted across a range of logging and milling processes and made freely known to industry, significantly contributed to the success of the pine plantations. Fire protection was also being addressed: a series of weather stations was established by 1938, and by 1942, the Forest Service was divided into 61 Fire Districts.

In the decade following World War Two, the constraints on many things eased. Staff were recruited and trained, and the specialists that were so greatly needed in so many fields, were obtained. With these and better equipment of all kinds including radio communication, forest management and protection was placed on a more sure basis, and forward planning was also improved. The Head Office also began to have the experts and the organisation needed to ensure co-ordination, progress, and innovation. 

Remarkably, there were no significant fires over this period. By the early 1940s (State Forest Annual Reports 1940/451), losses had been reduced to 5,800 ha annually of mixed forest cover (1,100 ha State from an average of 30 fires). Then came the disastrous fires of the first quarter of 1946 that followed periods of drought in Hawke’s bay, Rotorua/Taupo and North Auckland districts. These were the most extensive fires in New Zealand’s history. State losses totaled 6,665 ha in 62 fires, 50% of this in indigenous forests. Private owners lost 13,330 ha of exotic and 4,460 ha of indigenous forests, and fire ran over a further 216,500 ha of cutover forest, tussock and scrub in a total of 311 fires (State Forest Service Annual Report 1945/461). Sawmill losses probably exceeded the nine lost in the 1918 Raetahi fire. 

This was a wake up call for fire protection. It resulted in new legislation for forest and rural fires that would make adequate provision for rural fire control throughout the country and, for the first time, would lay the foundation for a good rural firefighting organisation. Studies also began on forest fire danger rating systems used in other countries. 

Organised Fire Fighting

One provision of the Fire Brigades Act 1906 was to create the position of Inspector of Fire Brigades to enforce standards and encourage professionalism. The former Chief Fire Officer of Wellington Fire Brigade, TT Hugo was Inspector from 1908 until 1931.  He was replaced by Roy Girling-Butcher, who served until 1950 when the position done away with.

A further Fire Brigades Act in 1926 consolidated the then existing urban fire legislation and this act remained in force until 1949. By 1946 there were 60 constituted fire districts, each with its own fire board and fire brigade, and financed by the Crown, local authority, and insurance underwriters.

In addition to the 60 fire brigades controlled by fire boards, there were also 99 fire brigades in boroughs which were not fire districts or within fire districts. These brigades were set up under authority of the Municipal Corporations Act 1920, which contained no provision for contributions from the Crown or the insurance companies, and the whole cost, therefore, had to be borne by the local authority. During the Second World War, an Emergency Precautions Scheme was set up to channel civilian effort into the war economy, and EPS workers were trained to deal with small fires. However, in March 1941, the government set up the Emergency Fire Service as a special branch of the Emergency Reserve Corps. EFS members were uniformed and trained as firefighters, and equipped with trailer pumps. The post war period saw many volunteer brigades being formed as tens of thousands of New Zealanders had received fire training either in active service or as part of the Emergency Fire Service. Wartime newsreels of bombing underscored the importance of fire protection. They naturally wanted to protect their homes once they returned to civilian life. 

In 1938 the then Inspector of Fire Brigades, R. Girling-Butcher, made the first moves towards amending the legislation with a view to providing an organisation for war and civil emergencies, and to improve the finances of the smaller fire brigades. Negotiations continued for several years, and it was not until 1949, after the tragicBallantynes fire, that the Fire Services Act was amended, and a Fire Service Council was established, under the chairmanship of Girling-Butcher.

Mt Victoria fire, Wellington, 1947

The fire brigades dealt to vegetation fires, assisted by residents using beaters should the need arise3. There is a short National Film Unit clip of a vegetation fire on Mt Victoria, Wellington, in 1947 that illustrates this response. 

It appears that forest fire protection was in-house, and did not attract much public attention. It is certain that forestry was active from the early 1920s in mounting fire patrols and maintaining lookouts. Measures were detailed in an Evening Post article. Steam trains were an ever-present hazard!  Moreover, the equipment arising from war mechanisation was becoming apparent. Fixed wing aircraft began to be used for patrols, and light weightpumps were available. And the Forest Service had embarked on building up a significant fleet of engines and tankers.

Significant Fires

In this period until the Taupo fire, while there were far fewer fires, they did present significant private losses such as the 1918 Raetahi fire that opened the period. Rural-urban interface gorse fires were an ongoing problem in cities.

The history of the West Coast reveals that there were some rampant, uncontrolled fires in Buller and the West Coast as land was cleared for farming and access for gold mining, and as a result of fires caused by sparks from bush locomotives and steam haulers. Old timers speak of fires burning for days over wide stretches of land in the Grey and Inangahua valleys, around Westport and inland between the Taramakau and Mikonui rivers. No attempt was made to put them out; they were regarded as doing “more good than harm,” and few were ever recorded. However, attitudes had changed, fire control was being implicated, and the State Forestry Department was making a difference. 


  • 23.10.1922: Whakarewarewa, Rotorua: newly formed Forestry Department in action.
  • January 1924: a hot, dry spell saw many fires around the country, including Ashburton, Balclutha, Wairarapa and Wellington. The Forestry Department was making its presence felt.
  • 10.3.1926: two mills at Pelorus threatened. 
  • 16.1.1928: extensive fires along the West Coast, Marlborough and in the Coromandel.
  • 10.10.1928: a gale fanned an old burn to 2,000 acres south of Gisborne.
  • 20.2.1929: peat and grass fires on the Hauraki Plains cause problems.
  • 28.2.1930: brigades charging for out-of-district firefighting services.
  • 9.2.1932: there was a 4,000 acre grass and scrub fire near Whakatane, and a threatening fire near Taumaranui.
  • 19.12.1932: a fire burned for two weeks in the Ureweras, destroying three buildings.
  • 1933-34 season: this was very dry – Marlborough had been deficient in rain for 3 years – yet unlike similar periods prior to 1919, the season was significant in that remarkably few fires were reported. There was a fire at Pt Howard, near Wellington, that was emulated in 1938 and 1989.
  • The 1937-38 season was initially very dry. In November, about 1,000 acres of State forest, and 2,000 acres of millable bush was burnt in the National Parkregion. There had been a wildfire in the area. Salvage operations were underway. A 1,000 acre scrub fire threatened a private forestry plantation at Matahina, Bay of Plenty. About 180 acres of scrub and bush was burnt (7.11.37) on Mt Holdsworth, Wairarapa. A scrub fire on Wainuiomata Hill in Lower Hutt burnt through several hundred acres (14.11.37). Fire burnt almost 640 acres of a private block of exotic forest in Upper Atiamuri, Rotorua (1.12.1937). It was contained by 150 men, including assistance from the State Forest Department. Several hundred ha of beech were burnt on Marchant Ridge of the lower Tararua Range (21.1.1938). The fire caused some damage in Wellington City’s water catchment area, prompting a warning in the Evening Post. There had been a dry spell over much of the country for more than five weeks, and it was a change to a wet southerly that prevented this fire from becoming much larger. Other areas (Manawatu, Waikato peat, Northland), Marlborough (Wither Hills, 11.1.1938) were experiencing fires during January.
  • 1939: the preceding December was very wet, but then dryness set in. On 10 January, a fire that burnt through 1,000 acres of slash east of Ongaonga, Central Hawkes Bay, was thought to have started at a logging camp. It was believed that this gave rise to several other fires due to spotting. On 20 February, Balmoral Forest, Canterbury, suffered its  first  major fire, 200 acres burnt. The dry spell continued. On about 2 April, there was a large bush fire in Tennyson Inlet, Marlborough Sounds. Then it was Wellington’s turn, with a scrub fire at Fort Dorset on 4 April that threatened ammunition stores. On 18 April, Marlborough suffered a huge grass fire covering some 1000 ha. The drought continued, with abnormally low rivers., but it was broken by 20 April. Thousands of acres inNorthland had allegedly been burnt. 
  • 27-28.12.1940: Eyrewell Forest, Canterbury. The total area burnt was 526 ha, including  469 ha of 6-12 year old pines, valued at £14,000.  The fire started on private land, and its spread was dictated by multiple spot fires because of the NE wind. A plane from the Wigram aerodrome undertook voluntary air patrols, and phoned the observations back to Forest Service HQ. On the second day, 150 men from the Air Force at Wigram and Harewood bases were trucked in to quell the blaze. Locally manufactured CMW knapsack sprays proved inadequate as they consistently fell apart; by 1949, “Indian” replacements were throughout the Forest Service. A  Dennis fire engine was used, and it ran faultlessly for the two days.
  • 24.2.1942: fire burnt several hundred acres of young eucalypts and firs on Mount Bledisloe, Bay of Islands, above Waitangi House. It fortunately did not get into the Waitangi National Reserve.


    1. January1944: a fire that started near Acacia Bay, Taupo, gave a foretaste of what was to come two years later. This 1944 fire was to sweep 20 to 27 km, burning out around Huka Falls and the Spa Hotel. It caused the evacuation of the Wairakei Hotel, then a mental hospital for women, and loss of at least 100 acres of exotic plantation. It was the worst fire in the area since 1928. 1943 was wet, apart from December. This dry spell of weather caused problems elsewhere. Further to the north in the Tarawera area, four hunters had a narrow escape from a scrub fire. Mid-Canterbury had several fires caused by a train. York and Mahina Bays on the Wellington Harbour suffered an extensive scrub fire on 7 January, and the drought persisted, with mounting concern. Use of the war-time EPS was being encouraged by the Minister of Civil Defence. Silverstream in  the Hutt Valley had a large fire that threatened properties and during which wirelesses were successfully used to co-ordinate the efforts of hundreds of firefighters. The drought was broken later in the month. THere was a view that some of the North Island fires may have been caused by careless use of motor car gas producer units, a war time innovation. Australia was experiencing bad bushfire losses at the same time, with 19 people killed and 700 houses lost.
      Taupo fire,  1946


  • 7.2.1946:  following a prolonged drought, a fire broke out alongside the  Wairakei-Oruanui Road  in the Taupo region. In the space of a few days, it threatened Taupo township, and became the biggest single plantation fire experienced to that date in either New Zealand or Australia . The Taupo blaze was not the only bad fire of the season as in the same month, firefighters were busy all over the country4. Wellington firefighters had numerous scrub fires; Auckland was tackling Mt Eden’s biggest grass fire; and Dargaville firefighters had a 5,000 ha scrub fire to quell.


1. Neill Cooper, History of Forest Fires in New Zealand.
2. B.J. Swale, An Abbreviated History of Forestry in New Zealand.
3. Eastbourne Fire Brigade 60th Anniversary, 1923-83