Management and Legislation
State Forest Service
Organised Fire Fighting
Significant Fires/Incidents


Management and Legislation

The aftermath of the disastrous Taupo fires of 1946 was swift. In its 1947 Annual Conference, the United Fire Brigades Association debated NZ’s first national fire emergency, and roundly condemned ”the lack of any organisation and directive over fire fighting equipment”. 12,141 ha of private exotic forest were lost in the Taupo fire. Public attention was drawn to the losses by fire

post Taupo fires publicity campaign, 1947

 safety campaigns (right). The Government passed the Forest and Rural Fires Act 1947 and, for the first time, other rural fire authorities could be set up other than the State – county, soil conservation and rural fire districts – and had responsibility for vegetation fires. All could declare closed fire seasons, appoint rural fire officers, make levies and requisition manpower to fight fires. The Crown was not bound, and protection against fire for State Forests was still provided for in the Forests Act 1921. This was changed after the Balmoral fire of 1955 when the Forest and Rural Fires Act 1955 brought all rural fire legislation together for the first time. The Forest Service became responsible for fire protection of all Crown-owned land.

The Act was overhauled in 1977. Rather than a calamitous incident prompting this, the reason was the failure of the system of rural fire districts. Of the 114 RFDs gazetted since 1947, only 17 remained in 1977. Most of the failures were in areas that did not contain large exotic plantation blocks, but Soil Conservation Fire Authorities and many territorial local authorities were also not functioning satisfactorily in terms of fire protection. The 1947 Act had made all territorial local authorities the de facto RFAs for their areas. The Forest Service was well aware of the failures, and had lobbied for several years to get the legislation changed to redress the deficiencies. The Enquiry Committee that reported on the 1972 Mt White fire highlighted the problems of ill-defined responsibilities, misunderstanding, lack of co-ordination and poor communications. The intent of the Forest and Rural Fires Act 1977 was an attempt to force the RFAs  to meet their obligations.    

One major advance to assist RFAs with fire suppression costs was the introduction of a Rural Fire Fighting Fund by the Government in 1986. The aim of this was to keep fires small by facilitating the employment of resources such as helicopters at fires to promote rapid attack and control. 

The urban fire service also had a shakeup in the late 1940s. The Ballantyne’s department store fire in Christchurch on 18 November 1947 in which 41 people died exposed deficiencies in administration and training. The investigating Royal Commission recommended a single national service to be formed from the 100 municipal brigades and 60 fire boards. However, opposition by opponents to a national service saw the resulting Fire Service Act 1949 fall short of this. Instead of nationalisation, a seven-man Fire Council, reporting to the Minister of Internal Affairs, was appointed to provide for co-ordination and the setting of standards. The first Chairman of the Council was Roy Girling-Butcher who had been Inspector of Fire Brigades. The latter fulltime position was replaced by a Chief Fire Service Officer, and a UK fire officer, TA Varley, was appointed. Fire protection was to be based on urban fire districts, of which there were three classes, and in which a Chief Fire Officer was in charge. 

This urban fire service administration would last until 1976. Henry May, Minister of Internal Affairs in the short-lived 3rd Labour Government in 1974, revived the Ballantyne’s Royal Commission’s recommendation of a national fire service. On 1 August 1974, the Fire Service Council was replaced with a three-person Fire Service Commission that was charged with planning to restructure the local authority-based brigades. May, and many of his extended family members, were volunteer firefighters. The Fire Service Act 1975 was passed on 19 September, and the transition on 1 April 1976 to the national New Zealand Fire Service was relatively smooth.

State Forest Service

In 1949 a new Forests Act was passed  by Parliament; one provision changed the name of the State Forest Service to New Zealand Forest Service. As a result of the 1946 Taupo fires, the Director-General of Forests A. R. Entrican decided that a Chief Fire Control Officer should be appointed at Head Office. He considered the position so important that the O/C Kaingaroa was eventually approved for the position, and so Lionel Bailey became the first CFCO. This set in train a series of other appointments as the basis of credible fire management organisation was fleshed out. 

The Forest Research Institute was established in Rotorua in 1947. A year later, a Fire Danger Meter

Golden Downs, Nelson, fire demo, 1949

 was released (a metric version appeared in 1973) to assist in monitoring conditions. An extensive network of weather stations had existed since 1938. In 1950, the first 10 day fire officers training course was held in Rotorua. The Fire Danger Meter, trucks and equipment of the Forest Service are featured in this 1949 film (right) demonstrating the Golden Downs fire teams. Rumour has it that it took 3 days to extinguish the fire that was lit to make the demonstration realistic!!

In 1961, after the retirement of Entrican, A. L. Poole was appointed1 Director-General and a new management structure of functional directorates, sitting alongside the seven regional conservator responsibilities, was created to better serve the more complex responsibilities of the Service. The Forest Research Institute at Rotorua was also re-assigned as a Head Office directorate.

In the mid 1980s, the New Zealand Forest Service, was responsible for about 4.4 million hectares of land (16% of New Zealand) including 600,000 hectares, or 52%, of the total plantation area. It also had two large sawmills and undertook forestry training, most of the country’s forest research, border protection against forest pests and diseases, national forestry statistics, advice to government and all the other functions of a large multi-purpose government forestry agency typical of many countries.

However, when subjected by Treasury review from 1980 onwards, and by politicians in for example the McLean report of 1978, the Service was criticised for a lack of emphasis on reporting of profit and loss. This requirement had not been previously specified but, with the new Labour Government of 1984, a new emphasis on profitability, combined with financial analysts’ disregard of forestry and environmental values, and of strategic resource planning, weighed against the Service. Forest Service staff were probably politically and financially naive, and seemed unable to adequately counter the arguments. NZ Forest Service had operating deficits of $NZ70 million/year in the mid 1980s from its commercial activities. Studies in the late 1980s had shown that the commercial forest activities of the Forest Service had run at a loss in every one of that department’s 67-year history. 

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Roger Kerr, who went onto become CEO of the Right-wing Business Round Table, but was then a senior Treasury official, was heard on radio to state and explain that the State had no (legitimate) business being ‘in forestry’. Such statements seemed incomprehensible and stupid at the time, especially to Forest Service staff imbued with a spirit of productive service to the public and nation. However, the Minister of Finance Roger Douglas and others in Government were working to agendas targeting profits, and poorly performing departments were to be turned around. The view was that private industry would do better, and so in 1986 the decision was made to break up the Service, and sell the commercial arm of it. 

Organised Fire Fighting

Between 1945 and 1965, the number of fire brigades more than doubled. Most of the new units sprung up in small boroughs and rural communities. The year 1954 saw the beginning of the Fire Services Coordination Scheme for rural fire protection and operation at emergency fires. With the introduction of that scheme it became mandatory for fire brigades to attend all property fires within 5 road miles of their fire stations, whether or not such fires were within their gazetted fire districts, the cost of such attendances to be recovered from the rural local authority in whose territory the fires occur. Outside the gazetted urban fire district, all fires other than property fires (i.e., grass, scrub, forest fires, etc.) remain the responsibility of the rural local authority, which is a rural fire authority under the Forest and Rural Fires Act 1947.

Immediately before the transition into the new national New Zealand Fire Service in 1976, the NZFS Commission listed2 staff and assets as 8313 firefighters (1879 permanent and 6434 volunteers), 470 self-propelled pumps, 430 portable pumps and 105 trailer pumps. There were 277 fire districts (ie. 277 Chief Fire Officers) as well as 33 fire brigade auxilliary districts.

Not all volunteer fire units were urban, or wanted to be part of the NZFS. A 2005 FRFANZ survey showed that at least 15 rural units had been formed before 1976, and remained outside the national service. The earliest was Lauriston, formed in 1949. Most of them were set up to look after their local communities, doing much the same job as volunteer brigades in rural areas, and used trailers to store fire gear, or acquired disposed fire engines. They were unable, or unwilling, to become part of the formal fire service and were generally called fire parties. After 1976, the NZFS was averse to expanding the numbers of brigades it had, and few made the transition.

However, a few units had been set up to deal with vegetation fires only and assist rural fire authorities. Notable among these were the Wainuiomata Bushfire Force (1970) and the Canterbury High Country Fire Team (1971). The Forest Service was active and supportive in fostering the wildland fire units. Legal description of these was vague until the definition of ‘voluntary rural fire forces’ under the Forest and Rural Fires Regulations 1979. 

Advanced plantation fire management skills and techniques were developed by the NZ Forest Service with State ownership of New Zealand’s large plantation resources. Fire management was a component of general training for all new recruits, and forest managers acquired knowledge of and a respect for fire. Fire management also became a specialised field for some managers. The emphasis was on some prevention but mostly on suppression, and there was little attention to accurate cost and area lost details, and hence no economic benefit analysis of different protection programmes. The Forest Service had deployed a significant fleet of fire vehicles throughout the country, and these were to be needed. Fire research was not a priority, but one project did lead to the introduction of the Canadian Fire Danger Rating system into NZ forestry.

The Forest Service supported the rest of the rural sector in fire management and fire protection activities, so there was no duplication of effort. Farmers and small forest owners could gain “umbrella” protection from the Forest Service. The economic benefit was assumed and not calculated. Fire prevention expenditure during the NZ Forest Service era and around the time of the Cooper Review (1984/85) varied for districts based on fire “hazard”, i.e., fire danger. Expenditure ranged from $7.60 for Low hazard districts to $8.20 for High hazard Districts. At that time, fire protection costs for private forestry companies were about $5.80/ha.

John Ward recalled his early experiences with the Forest Service at the 1999 FRFANZ Conference. Don Geddes wrote his recollections in private forestry in a 1997 edition of The Rural Firefighter.

Significant Fires/Incidents

The first major incident  of the new Forest Service was to be not a fire, but the Tangiwai Rail Disaster. Karioi Forest staff provided the first organised response to this tragedy that killed 151 people on Christmas Eve 1953. During the NZ Forest Service era to 1987, at least one major forest fire (500+ ha) occurred nationally about once each decade; the average annual loss was in the order of 640 ha or 0.16% of the State area. Indigenous forest was not spared either. DOC estimated that between 1965 and 1985, a total of 1629 fires burnt a total of 80,000 ha of indigenous forest within 1.6 km of State areas.

The following is a list of significant fires and incidents in this period:

Motueka, exotic plantation, 1948/49. 1 firefighter death as a result of fire run.
Tangiwai rail tragedy
, Karioi Forest, 24-26 December, 1953. 151 deaths.
exotic plantation, Canterbury, 25-28 November, 1955. 2,991 ha.
Mawhera, exotic plantation, West Coast, November1969. 400 ha.
Slopedown, exotic plantation, Southland,  February 1971. 295 ha.
Mt White, exotic plantation, Canterbury, 23 February 1972. 615 ha.
Rankleburn, exotic plantation, Southland, 1972. 422 ha.
Ashley, exotic plantation, Canterbury, 7 February 1973. 194 ha.
Mohaka, exotic plantation, East Coast, 3 November 1973. 368 ha.
Waimea, exotic plantation, West Coast, 1975. 370 ha.
Hanmer, exotic plantation, North Canterbury, 22 March 1976. 798 ha, of which 537 ha was pine..
Wairapukao, exotic plantation, 5 December 1977. 432 ha.
Earthquake Gully, scrub, Taupo,  March 1978. 2,000 ha.
Mt Thomas, beech forest, Canterbury, 1980. 900 ha.
Willow Flat, control burn, 11 February 1980. 2 firefighter deaths.
Wairoa, control burn, 1978/80. 1 farmer death.
Mt Thomas, control burn, tussock/cut manuka, 1980 1 firefighter death.
Hira, exotic plantation, Nelson, 5 February 1981. 1,972 ha.
Balmoral, April 1981.
Haldon/Waitangi, tussock, Waitaki, 1982. 2,000 ha.
Ohinewairua, tussock, beech, manuka/kanuka, Central North Island, 4-9 February 1983. 15,000 ha.
Awarua, wetlands, Southland, 28 October 1986. 1,360 ha.

1. B.J. Swale, An Abbreviated History of Forestry in New Zealand.
2. G McLean, New Zealand Tragedies, Fires and Firefighting, Grantham House, 1992