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

7 — Wellington and Auckland Provinces

page 84

Wellington and Auckland Provinces

When mayor James Paul of New Plymouth wrote to his fellow mayors supplementing his controversial telegram, one reason he gave for declining further outside help was that ‘fires are reported in many other districts’.1 And indeed as early as 4 January the Manawatu Standard's editor was writing, ‘Scarcely a newspaper in the North Island can now be opened which does not narrate tales of disaster and peril by reason of the spread of fire’. There must have been growing apprehension throughout the North Island as the drought deepened over Christmas and New Year. Day by day settlers watched billowing clouds of smoke, wondering whether they were from distant fires, from local ‘burning off, or from a nearby fire out of control. Rumours abounded, but fortunately reliable information in the local press kept them in check.

The news that flowed into Wellington telling of great fires in Hawke's Bay and Taranaki came to a capital surrounded by fire and blanketed in smoke. A massive fire had destroyed a substantial area along Lambton Quay on the night of 28–29 December.2 This was of course well covered by insurance, and the fires in the surrounding countryside did no substantial damage, but the city fire and the ever present sense of danger must have made the citizens more sympathetic to sufferings further afield, and the government more ready to respond to requests for aid. The last weeks of 1885 saw large bush fires in the hills behind Thorndon, the capital's government suburb, with houses at times in danger.3 The Hutt Valley was frequently obscured from Wellington by extensive burns in its surrounding hills. In the settled countryside farmers lost grass crops and hedges and complained that sparks from railway engines on the Manawatu and Wairarapa lines were putting their properties in constant danger. There was much apprehension on Thursday, 7 January, when the city was enveloped in dense smoke through which the sun appeared as a ball of fire. There were rumours that the whole countryside was alight from Terawhiti to Johnsonville and on north to Pauatahanui. Next morning's New Zealand Times put the record straight with accurate first-hand reports from these districts. The local fires were limited and in the main well under control. Most of the smoke must have come from much further afield.

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Much smoke may have come from the Wairarapa, where by Wednesday afternoon, 6 January, Masterton was completely surrounded by bush fires. Here the welfare of Masterton and of the open country runs, which were mainly to the south and east of the town, was in direct conflict with the interests of bush settlers wishing to burn off. The Wairarapa Daily of 7 January complained bitterly of ‘many instances in which fires have been deliberately lighted for the sake of burning off, and this in spite of frequent warnings. From Masterton by noon on the 7th smoke could be seen ascending in all directions. The bush settlers were obviously taking advantage of a fine calm day to light their clearings. By 4 p.m. the sun was almost obscured. A call for help came from nearby Wrigley's Bush where a fire threatened buildings and would certainly endanger the town if a fresh northerly breeze arose. The fire brigade took an engine out and eventually gained control. Meanwhile a messenger from Upper Manaia, west of the town, brought a call for help with a tremendous fire raging there. He was sent off empty-handed, as all available men were committed to Wrigley's Bush. The Manaia fire soon got out into open country ‘where it swept off the grass in thorough Australian style’ as far down as the Manaia pa. Houses were successfully defended but much fencing was lost. Settlers to the south prepared to defend themselves should the wind change to the north-west, but fortunately it died away completely overnight.4

There were also fires to the east. All the bush surrounding the township of Taueru was alight and a large area of grass had been burnt on nearby Brancepeth run. To the south Carterton was enveloped in smoke, the area west of the town was a mass of smouldering fire, and the heat was almost unbearable. There was fear the fire might get into the long dry grass of the neighbouring runs leading to ‘a repetition of the fire that was experienced about fourteen years ago’. Those with the time to spare could gaze with unprotected eyes on the sun which appeared as an orange coloured disc with a large sunspot just above the centre. However most eyes concentrated on the more mundane discerning of shifts in the force and direction of the winds on which the district's immediate fortunes depended. Fortunately, after a shift to the east on the afternoon of the 7th, the wind changed to the south overnight, bringing up thick clouds, and by morning the Wairarapa townships were clear of smoke and the fire danger was over for a time. There was only a fortnight's respite before fires were again raging. On 20 January a fire swept a considerable area of West Taratahi. On the 22nd a fire closed the road near Tauweru for a short time and interrupted the telegraph line. Much fencing on the Brancepeth and Abbotsford runs was destroyed. Rain at the end of January put an end to Wairarapa's fire danger for the season. Despite widespread alarms and various losses the winds had been kind to the valley.

Across the ranges the citizens of Palmerston North and Feilding entered page 86 the new year with growing concern about their unpreparedness to meet the growing fire threat. The competing demands of a young settlement had left Palmerston North with streets and paths covered with tall grass and a fire brigade that had sunk into oblivion. A meeting convened by the mayor on 8 January decided to consider the old brigade defunct and to form a new one underwritten by the borough council.5

Feilding did not possess even a defunct fire brigade but its councillors were not prepared to take things so seriously. With many townsfolk edgy on account of dry wells and empty rainwater tanks and the Feilding Star castigating them for inaction, the only effective action they would take was to arrange for a bugler to sound the alarm should a fire break out.6

Perhaps fortunately, the hurried preparations in Palmerston North and Feilding were not put to the test. The district's great fire battle of this season was fought at the sawmilling settlement of Taonui, a mile or two from Feilding on the railway line to Palmerston North. There on 22 January fire broke out near Henry Adsett's mill, and the mill and the workers' houses nearby were quickly surrounded by flames. The work force of the neighbouring mill of Bailey brothers rushed to the fight with horses and trucks to move timber and furniture. Several houses were lost, but the mill and most of the settlement was saved in a tremendous battle fought largely from the roof tops. Some of the men lost most of their hair, beards, clothes, and even eyelashes as they refused to yield before the flames. The engine driver of the water pump kept himself saturated to prevent his clothes catching fire. One house from which windows, doors and furniture had been removed caught fire when flames ran under the flooring. It was saved by ripping up the floor and drenching with buckets of water. Twenty volunteers from Feilding arrived by the evening train to reinforce the tiring defenders. Besides the houses, a good deal of fencing and mill tramline was burnt.7

Over the next few days great masses of smoke could be seen rising from the bush settlement frontiers to the east and north of Feilding and various rumours of disaster ran through the town. In fact all threatened houses were saved, but much grass and fencing was lost. Heavy rain on 26 January put an end to the longest drought in the experience of the settlers. A return of dry weather brought another burning season in late February and early March. Large areas of bush had been felled in the Fitzherbert district, above the bluffs of the south bank of the Manawatu River opposite Palmerston North. The Manawatu Standard reported the ‘gorgeous spectacle’ of the night of 26 February. Vast dense volumes of smoke rolled upwards and were illuminated by the flames. The fire lit up the surrounding countryside, and the hills had a weird, grand appearance. Great bush fires continued in the Fitzherbert district for about a week, giving rise at one stage to rumours in Feilding that Palmerston North was engulfed in flames.8

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In the Auckland Province the effects of the long drought had some features that differed markedly from those in the rest of the North Island. Along the long straggle of the Northland peninsula the kauri timber industry continued to be water-based. Mills were mainly on the coast, depending on freshes in the streams to bring down logs from the hills. As the streams dried up in the drought the mills began to grind to a halt.9 So too did the batteries of the quartz-mining industry of the Hauraki and Ohinemuri goldfields.10 Auckland also had its share of bush and grass fires, as well as something different—peat fires in the drying Waikato swamps. Lacking the drama and speed of bush and grass fires, these swamp fires did not make their way easily into the newspaper record, but their insidious persistence and their pungent smoke must have had a wearing effect on the communities affected.

Fires were well established in the swamps around Hamilton by Christmas 1885. A fire in the Rukuhia swamp south of Hamilton was being strenuously but unsuccessfully fought by the local road board as it had invested the road leading to the Rukuhia railway station. In the new year it was finally contained by carting in sand to smother it. To the west another fire burnt fiercely in the Hamilton and Whatawhata swamp. On Christmas Day a settler, Fitzgerald, noticed that it was endangering ‘the new bridge over the big drain’ on the Hamilton-Whatawhata road and he spent three hours in the scorching sun working with a bucket to save the bridge. Early in the new year the Waikato Times correspondent away on the west coast at Raglan reported that, although the district was enjoying cloudless days, smoke often abounded because of the heavy fires raging in the Waikato swamps. Before the middle of January swamps between Thames and Paeroa were alight and one settler's house was lost. In the Piako swamp another large fire moved southwards to threaten the railway line between Ruakura and Eureka. In the early morning of Sunday, 24 January, a battle began for the Ruakura railway station. With little or no water available the defenders resorted to digging up wet peat to fight the flames. Though ‘the terrible fumes of smoke’ forced them to withdraw from time to time, they saved the station after a struggle of several hours.11

In the mining settlements to the east the battles were with bush fires. In the bush at Waiorongomai, near Te Aroha, there was a day-long struggle around Fergusson's battery on 2 January. It was saved after several narrow escapes. Within a week or two this battery was brought to a halt by lack of water. On 11 January the mining township of Owharoa, about five miles west of Waihi, was practically wiped out by a fire originating in the hotel in the middle of the night. Seven buildings, including two hotels, stores and stables, were completely destroyed, but the Smile of Fortune battery plant was saved. The miners apparently concentrated on saving their means of livelihood. It was no easy task. A strong east wind was blowing and the page 88 battery house roof repeatedly caught fire. With their township in ashes the miners dispersed to various empty whares and huts about the district.

As the month wore on both swamp and bush fires became more widespread, while one after another the mining batteries came to a halt. At Te Rahu near Te Awamutu a bush fire was spreading to threaten two saw mills. Then came heavy rain over the Waikato and surrounding districts. The fires were quenched, the streams began to run freely again, and the batteries got back to work.

By about 6 January serious fires were burning on both the west and east coasts of Northland. At Kaukapakapa a fire in Drinnan's bush destroyed two cottages and a large quantity of prepared timber before a gang of 30 men brought it under control. On the east coast at Matakana J.E. Matthew was preserving the district's only surviving kauri bush as a shelter belt for his orchards. The whole 150-acre stand and part of the nursery were wiped out by fire on 6 January.12

On 8 January a fire spread east of the railway line at Waimauku, in bush for which brothers J. and J.R. Foster had the cutting rights. A change of wind on the 9th brought it blazing westwards. It leapt the Kaipara River, travelled with great force through scrub, crossed the railway line and threatened the Waimauku railway station and a large new building belonging to the Fosters. This building consisted of a general store, a butcher's shop and a gum store. The kauri forest which the Fosters' bushmen were working had been pretty well cut over earlier, but they had a good deal of timber felled on the slopes above the railway line, waiting to be hauled down for railing out. Early in the outbreak a bullock team had a narrow escape. Fosters' men assisted by neighbouring settlers were fully extended for several days in containing the fire. The station and store were successfully defended. The felled logs up the slopes were saved by deluging them with water brought from the creek by bucket chain. But some valuable standing kauri timber and 200 tons of cut firewood were lost. Sawmillers with interests in the surrounding hills watched the fire with apprehension. They had large areas of standing timber at risk, as well as large quantities of cut logs waiting for freshes. They seem to have escaped any serious damage. The only other significant loss of this dry spell was in the Bay of Islands where a large bush fire raging in the Waimate district destroyed a substantial recently built bridge. But not until late February was there sufficient rain to bring logs down the streams to put all the mills back to work