Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

New Zealand's Burning — The Settlers' World in the Mid 1880s

3 — Hawke's Bay and the Seventy Mile Bush

page 38

Hawke's Bay and the Seventy Mile Bush

The summer's fires in the Seventy Mile Bush make an untidy story, partly because the bush settlements were an untidy collection, in various stages of development. In the northern section of the bush, townships had been multiplied by the divergence of road and railway, for when the railway route was finalised it entered the Bush near Takapau and proceeded south some six kilometres east of the pioneer township of Norsewood. Takapau gained in importance, as the point where railway and road diverged, and Ormondville and Makotuku grew as rivals to Norsewood, benefiting from their position on the railway. Yet for years all their wheeled road traffic went by way of Norsewood, though those on foot and horse often used the railway as a short cut.1 Kopua and Matamau also each flourished briefly as sawmilling centres. All these settlements looked on the little town of Waipawa to the north-east as their local capital. So too, by a separate network of roads and tracks leading eastwards from the foothills of the Ruahines, did the settlers of Ashley Clinton, Makaretu and Blackburn. This area was noted for fine totara stands, but lacked good communications to get its timber products out. Far from the railway, it was inadequately roaded through being settled under a Hawke's Bay Act which did not allocate any of the land payments to local bodies for roadworks. The various settlements therefore differed both in the development of their farming and forest industries, and in their ease of communication with each other and with Waipawa and the outside world.

If the settlements make an untidy story, so do the fires. Rather than falling upon the district in one clear swoop, they seemed to play a cat and mouse game with the settlers, stirring this way and that with the eddying breezes, ebbing and flowing as the occasional showers broke the long succession of scorching days, wearing the settlers down by insidiously stalking them week after week, then suddenly pouncing as if hoping to catch them off their guard. The settlers first came under real pressure in mid December and were not clearly out of trouble until the end of January.

At Makaretu bush burns began in mid November and a local correspondent page 39
Figure 3.1 Southern Hawke's Bay, summer 1885–86

Figure 3.1 Southern Hawke's Bay, summer 1885–86

page 40 vividly describes how on 19 November a great wind swept down and fanned nearly a square mile into flames. A storekeeper put out fires on his roof three times, and one man sent his women away, but the occasion passed without any real losses.2 In the Seventy Mile Bush itself a fire which had smouldered for two months near Makotuku, following the burning of a sawmill, flared into a threatening bush fire early in December, but the danger passed as the wind dropped and showers fell.3 By mid December a tremendous fire had somehow got away in the ranges behind Makaretu and at times was blanketing Waipawa with smoke.4 After these and doubtless other unreported alarms, the fires made their first real pounce at Takapau on Monday 21 December.5

The Takapau fire was attributed to settlers firing bush burns without calculating the consequences. A rising south-west wind blowing towards Frederick Drower's sawmill carried the flames through dry timber and tree tops to the mill. The danger was not realised till noon, and the battle was over by 3 p.m. The men fought vigorously and might have saved the mill had they not been blinded by the dense smoke. As it was, they managed to get much of the machinery and equipment to a place of safety before the flames swept through the mill building. They also saved the miles of tramway serving the mill. Several workmen's houses were burnt down, including those of two family men, Joseph Sullivan, bushman, and Tripp, a shoemaker, who lost his tools of trade. These families, with five children between them, lost almost everything, including clothing and bedding. One of the women had been confined to bed and was carried to safety in Thomas Hobson's woolshed, where both families took refuge. A bullock team hauling a load of timber from the mill took fright as the flames approached and broke loose. By the time the driver had rounded them up his dray and its load had gone up in flames.

This fire had by no means finished its work. On Tuesday the 22nd it was spreading in nearby bush and Takapau was almost deserted as its folk went to aid their bush settler neighbours. On Wednesday the 23rd it began breaking into the open country, spreading in grass along the railway, along gorse hedges, and over dry pasture. The biggest losers were the Whites of Sherwood, towards Ashley Clinton. Mrs White had been widowed only the previous year. As the fire approached she sent her two sons to drive in the cattle while she and a companion tried to save the furniture. They rescued a piano, but the homestead, the rest of the furniture, and the outbuildings, went up in flames. Sydney Johnston had more success defending his Orua Wharo station to the east of Takapau, but his men had to battle for several days and nights to keep the fire from sweeping the run. Meanwhile the fire harried the bush settlers in and around Takapau for over a week. As it raged all around, seeming to break out in fresh places from time to time, settlers page 41
The start of a bush burn

The start of a bush burn

removed their household goods to what they hoped were safer places, and night and day kept a bleary-eyed watch over their humble dwellings. There were various further losses, including a large number of posts, hewn from the forest by two hard-working family men. Yet as the fires slowly waned Takapau could count itself lucky in comparison with Makotuku, the next victim.

Over the night of Sunday 27 December the fire still smouldering at the site of Lewis Parsons's old mill, about a kilometre from Makotuku, was stirred to life by a strong breeze. At daybreak on Monday it broke suddenly upon Makotuku from the west. Those in its path had little time to defend their homes and their attempts were hampered by dense acrid smoke preceding the flames. Some managed to get their goods to the railway station and into railway trucks. One settler, Forward, got all his furniture into the garden in the hope of saving it, only to see it go up in flames while the house survived. Before the day was out the destruction included Walter Gundrie's planing mill, Mosen and Schmitt's sawmill, about six houses, and several stables and other outbuildings. Sparks, and burning shavings from the planing mill were carried by the strong wind to spread the fire. The settlers' exertions prevented the fire from getting a hold to the east of the railway line and saved the school, although it caught fire several times. The fires continued to spread and test the ability of the settlers to hold what they had saved. Gundrie's page 42 men worked all day taking timber from the planing mill site to safety at the station. In the afternoon word came that the defenders of Lewis Parsons's new mill, back in the bush, were almost worn out. A relief party of twelve men set out, running a gauntlet of flames along a narrow bush road. Parsons told them that those they relieved could not have carried on through another night.

The Napier Daily Telegraph printed a first-hand account of one family's experiences of the following night, from a Taradale resident unfortunate enough to have begun on the previous Saturday a visit to the home of his brother-in-law in the bush between Parsons's mill and Makotuku. All day Monday they watched the fire spreading from the west, but from the direction of the wind they were in no danger. The three adults and five children (one just back from twelve months in Taradale) settled down for the night— no doubt with careful arrangements for a watch to be kept. During the night a wind change brought the fire upon them. With only time to grab a minimum of clothing and a few blankets they fled from the cottage, which was completely destroyed. They found shelter in a whare belonging to Lewis Parsons. The wife and children spent a miserable night there while the two men joined the battle to save Parsons's mill. Next morning the visitor decided to make his escape from the bush. Finding it impossible to get through the fire to the Makotuku station, he made his way to Ormondville where he caught the afternoon train north.

By Tuesday 29 December Napier community leaders were deeply concerned as news by telegraph, and from those on the trains passing through, told of fires continuing to spread, thick smoke blanketing the countryside, and defenders too worn out to effectively continue the fight. In desperation the Makotuku settlers telegraphed the Minister of Public Works, who in turn telegraphed the Napier Resident Magistrate to arrange the sending of a relief party of up to 50 men at the government's expense. The Napier folk moved quickly, arranging for the 4.30 p.m. train from Napier to Waipukurau to run on to Makotuku with a relief party. Captains Garner and Blythe of the Volunteers and Tom Waterworth, Superintendent of the Fire Brigade, hunted up 50 men for the party.

The press reported the contingent marshalled at the station to number in fact about 60, ranging from mere youths to grey-haired men. Their dress was miscellaneous, with fire brigade members in their oldest uniforms, judging rags most appropriate for the task ahead. Superintendent Waterworth was in charge, with several Volunteer officers to assist him. Although a telegraphed enquiry to Makotuku had advised (it proved wrongly) that no water was available for fire engines, it was decided to ignore this advice. The party's truck load of equipment and supplies included a small manual engine with 600 feet of hose, canvas buckets, two cases of axes, a bundle of page 43 long-handled shovels, rope, a ladder and tins of biscuits. The railway district manager was on the train, to see that the railway bridges in the bush were still in good order. All in all, despite its hasty dispatch, it would seem a well-considered and appropriately equipped expedition.

Meeting the afternoon train down from Tahoraiti at Pakipaki, they stormed its passengers with questions about Makotuku's fate. ‘Great blaze there, not so bad as in the morning; fourteen houses gone; no water to be got’, they were told, and ‘you had better take your fill of fresh air while you have the chance’.6 Their journey onward enlivened by quick-steps played on a piccolo by an elderly Volunteer, the party anxiously studied the country ahead. The Te Aute valley was full of smoke, apparently from local fires. The position of the railway was marked by a jagged carbon streak across the face of the country, the result of precautionary burning of the grass within the railway fences. At Te Aute there was a halt for tea and sandwiches. Leaving Te Aute the dense mass of smoke above the bush came into view, the sun lighting it up in rich ruby reds, golds and yellows, as if it were a sunset. Waipawa had a pile of bread, cheese and beer barrels ready to be bundled on board for the relief party, Makotuku having telegraphed that it could not provision them. Evening was coming on as they entered the bush at Takapau and began seeing evidence of fire, sometimes as bright red points through the trees, sometimes flaring up right beside the line. Stretches of dark bush, dismal in the gloaming, alternated with clearings covered with burning logs and dead standing trees discharging fountain sprays of sparks with each puff of wind. In places whole hillsides, exposed to the light wind, were burning hotly. Here and there a small cottage stood out blackly against a dull red background of fire-lit smoke, with candlelight showing that the occupants were standing their ground. Carefully examining each bridge before crossing, the expedition moved on through Ormondville, which had a great show of fire all round, and at last reached Makotuku at 8.45 p.m.

The relief party piled out and questioned the small crowd that greeted them. The locals were in a resigned mood as the wind had dropped and the worst seemed over. Yet they knew that the wind was likely to freshen towards daybreak, bringing a real danger of losing the rest of the township. On one thing they were unanimous: there was no water for the fire engine. Fortunately the newcomers assessed the situation for themselves. They found that most of the burning bush covered an area of about six square miles to the west of the township, between it and Norsewood. Within this conflagration was Parsons's beleaguered mill, cut off from relief by the flames. But something could be done for Makotuku. A triangular clump of about 12 acres of bush lay between the railway line and the main road, which separated it from the burning bush. Here and there the flames had leapt the road into this clump. Should a breeze whip the whole clump into flames, the rest page 44 of the township would go with it. The brigade found a good water supply near the main road and by 2 a.m. had dampened down all fires between the main road and the railway. They then tried to rest, but not very successfully as the only available accommodation was the cramped railway carriages. Meanwhile Makotuku's exhausted inhabitants took their first real rest in 36 hours.

On Wednesday morning, 30 December, the relief party freshened themselves as best they could with the primitive arrangements of a few buckets and a couple of towels. There was little left to do so they set off, with their fire engine, on the morning train for Napier. Reaching Hastings they found telegrams there advising them that the wind had risen and was carrying the fire towards Norsewood and Ormondville. A special train was on its way from Napier to take them back to the bush, and the Hastings Town Board had its recently purchased manual engine ready to go up with them. But the fires were now so widely spread, mainly in areas well away from the railway, that even with their two fire engines these now tiring volunteers can have made little difference to the outcome.

At Norsewood a log pile behind a vacant hotel was threatened by the flames. If it caught the hotel must go and take with it several adjoining buildings. Among those busy shifting these logs was Silberman, owner of a mill about half a mile away towards Ormondville. He assured his fellow workers that his mill was safe as there was plenty of water about it. Finishing the job with the logs he went off to see how things were at his mill. He was soon back with a bundle of blankets under his arm—all he had been able to save from his mill and his house. Another settler's house near the mill was also swept away. Meanwhile the long defence of Parsons's mill, further back in the bush, was still proving successful. But up in the foothills the Makaretu settlers were taking losses, though only scattered details of their battle reached the press. On the morning of 30 December the Hawke's Bay Herald's Makotuku correspondent rode out to Makaretu to see how the district was faring. He found Guldbrandsen's house burnt down, and two adjacent settlers, Stenberg and Hansen, blinded by the heat and smoke. Before setting off back home he arranged for a man to sleep in the school and protect it, and also to assist Stenberg and Hansen until they recovered their sight. Fires were now beginning to cause damage further south. On New Year's Eve Findlay's mill at Tahoraite just south of Dannevirke was lost. Then, on Friday, New Year's morning 1886, rain began falling in the bush districts. The Napier relief party returned home for the holiday weekend, and the general belief was that the danger was now over. In fact there was not even to be a weekend of respite.

The rain, it seems, was by no means general. On Sunday, 3 January, a strong wind swept a tidal wave of fire down on Makaretu. Its work of page 45 destruction continued into the following day. Further houses, sheds, hay and fields of grass seed were destroyed. Neighbouring districts such as Ashley Clinton probably suffered similarly in this wind. But it was Waipawa that took the hardest blow. Around 3 a.m. on Monday, 4 January, fire broke out in the township's main shopping centre and fanned by a strong wind grew rapidly to disastrous proportions. With no firefighting equipment or organisation the inhabitants scrambled about in a confused way, desperately getting what movables they could out of the buildings, but unable to do anything effective to contain the fire. Constable Brosnham and Sam, a barefooted Maori from near Takapau, teamed up and worked bravely giving what help they could right in the face of the flames. Within a few hours seven shops, the Empire Hotel, the Bank of New Zealand and the Post Office were in ashes. With the Post Office went the telegraphic link with Napier, but word was sent to Otane, which telegraphed Napier.

The news galvanised Napier to a much more rapid response than the earlier crisis in the bush. No doubt Napier businessmen had more investment at risk in Waipawa than in the bush settlements. Certainly while the insurance companies had generally refused bush risks, they were heavily committed to the Waipawa business community. A special train was rapidly arranged to take up a relief party, this time with the steam fire engine. To make this possible the Napier town authorities agreed to turn the high-pressure water supply into all the mains, in case of fire during its absence. A bevy of insurance agents joined the train, which was pushed south with great urgency, reaching 36 miles an hour, a phenomenal speed for the colony at that time. Despite delays in crossing the regular trains, Waipawa was reached just after noon. Once again the relief party was informed on arrival that the danger was past. Fortunately they unloaded their engine and got to work dousing the embers in the debris among the small forest of charred chimneys. After two hours they were talking of packing up for their return when the cry of ‘Fire’ was raised again. Carson's boarding house, higher up the street than the burnt out section, was afire, apparently lit by a spark blown from the earlier fire. By the time the brigade got their engine into action it was beyond salvage, and they had great difficulty in preventing the fire from spreading to neighbouring buildings. But for their presence Waipawa would have suffered a second disaster. Any bush settler coming down to Waipawa over the next few weeks would have to do without the services of Stirling the tobacconist, Chicken the watchmaker, O'Callaghan the tailor, Jull the fruiterer, Robertson the baker, Nash the painter and Stone's restaurant. Those who had business with the Bank of New Zealand would be pleased to learn that although the safes had been at red heat in the ruins, the books and papers within had come through without serious damage. But for the moment many of the bush settlers had more immediate problems.

page 46

The main fires had been briefly checked by the fall of rain but by Tuesday, 5 January, they were again on the move. Between Makotuku and Norsewood Parsons's mill was once more under threat. And Walter Gundrie had suffered another blow. He had known that his sawmill on the Makotuku to Norsewood road could not be defended if the fire reached the area. There was a large stretch of tinder dry felled bush to one side of it, and bush quite close on the other. The mill was in a gully with no place to which the machinery could be moved for safety. On Tuesday afternoon the fire reached it and quickly wiped out the mill and all the workmen's huts. Before the day was out the fires were also causing havoc on German Line, named for the origins of its settlers, a number of whom had arrived in Hawke's Bay on the Fritz Reuter from Germany in March 1875. The line had been under threat for over a week, the settlers working together to contain the fire's spread. Now it began to master them, devouring crops, fences and farm buildings and, despite their best efforts, several of their homes. August Fischer, a wood turner, was away in Napier, probably arranging the marketing of his handiwork. His house and contents, with all his turning tools, were completely destroyed. Mrs Sheffler, a widow with six children, was also completely burnt out. Franz Bartosh suffered heavily. He had only recently lost his wife after a prolonged illness in Napier Hospital, being left with three children, and now had to contend with a farm devastated by fire.

Even those who had not yet lost by the fires were being worn down by the constant threat. On Wednesday, 6 January, the Hawke's Bay Herald's Norsewood correspondent described the situation. His place was safer than that of the family opposite, so they had moved in with him with their six children and all their bedding. This had happened three times; twice they had gone back thinking the fire was over. With eleven souls under his care and fire all round, he was just about to sit up all night for the fourth time in a week. He described how the wind was bringing the fire back over ground it had covered earlier; trees and logs which had been only slightly burnt before had since become so dry that they now burnt fiercely. From his window through the drifting smoke he could see carts loaded with people and furniture moving about looking for safer places for the night. On this Wednesday afternoon the residents of Ormondville were in a similar predicament. The fires now seemed to be investing their town, and they feared that if the wind should rise the place would be completely destroyed before morning. Almost all of them had their furniture out of their houses, awaiting a train of trucks being sent to remove it to a place of safety. Several houses did catch fire, but fortunately the wind changed suddenly and they were saved. The strain of watching and waiting continued for several more days before the danger was past.

There were fires in other districts to both the north and the south. At page 47 Tikokino a large number of men had been beating away for a week at a fire threatening Bryson's sawmill, and another fire in this district had Rathbone's mill under threat. To the south, Tanner and Mortensen's mill at Matamau was endangered by bush fires raging there. At Dannevirke a fire which had destroyed another sawmill was now raging in McCallum's bush but was successfully brought under control on 7 and 8 January. About this time a fire which had smouldered for three weeks at Kumeroa, east of Woodville, was fanned to dangerous proportions and destroyed 40 sheep on Buchanan's run. With its higher rainfall the Woodville district did not suffer to the extent of the settlements to the north, and there was some movement of stock from the drought areas to these greener pastures. Thus J.D. Ormond began moving cattle from his Wallingford run to a property he owned at Woodville. Campbell, his stockman, arrived in Woodville on 8 January with a mob of 180 bullocks and told of the fearful work he had had in getting them through Matamau where the bush was all ablaze. He came across a number of dead cattle on the road and saw others much injured by the fires.

The fires seem to have died down over mid January, but there was another burst of activity towards the end of the month. Thomas Tanner, pioneer Hawke's Bay runholder, had a property at Woodville and on 22 January the manager fired the felled bush on it. Unfortunately the fire leapt the Manawatu River and got into William Peart's section, burning his whare and blinding him. He would almost certainly have perished but for the timely intervention of neighbours. The fire spread to several further properties, causing considerable losses. The last week of the month began with settlements all down the line through the bush once again in danger. At Ormondville fires burnt perilously close on both sides, and a day and night watch had again to be kept. No water was available, and if a strong wind had got up the town would have been hard to save. Makotuku was once more under threat as was Tanner and Mortensen's mill at Matamau. On 25 January a strong wind suddenly brought fire raging down on Dannevirke, and the settlers had a strenuous battle of several hours as cottage after cottage was threatened. There was much shifting out of furniture and stamping out of sparks within a battlefield covered with dense smoke. Fortunately water was freely available, and the defenders surprised themselves by saving all the threatened buildings.

At last, at the close of the month, 36 hours of heavy and widespread rain effectively broke the drought. Smouldering stumps, logs and sawdust heaps were finally thoroughly doused and the fire danger had passed. Both settlers and provincial leaders could now turn their whole attention to reconstruction and relief.