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THE RAETIHI FIRE
MONDAY 18th AND TUESDAY 19th MARCH 1918

The summer of 1917/1918 in the Waimarino (King Country, North Island) was said to have been the hottest summer in living memory. Water tanks were empty, streams had dried up and pastures were bare.

This area of New Zealand was (and still is) covered in very heavy bush. To enable farms to be established, the bush was cut and felled during the winter and then left to dry until the summer when it could be burnt off. The ash and debris then acted as a fertiliser for many years after.

Monday the 18th March, dawned as another hot dry day. During the day residents noticed smoke in the air but felt no cause for alarm. However during the early evening a roaring gale sprung up with winds of 125-140 kph.

The fires then raced out of control. The wind carried sparks and other burning debris for many miles. Houses and farm buildings were being destroyed, stock perished in their 1000s, and saw mills in the area became total wrecks. The fires headed towards the small town of Raetihi but many of the residents were able to escape to Ohakune by train. Other residents headed for the streams and culverts in the town and took shelter under bridges and in drains.

Settlers on outlying farms headed for the green bush and for local streams and rivers. One family placed their children in the empty water tank and hung wet blankets around it while the farmer and his wife braved sparks and flying objects to keep the tank damp.

At around 4am on Tuesday, Joseph AKERSTEN (AKERSTON in some reports) abandoned his house on the Mangaeturoa South Road, with his wife (?), their young child and their farm worker, Sydney SCOTT. With the thick smoke and gale force winds the family quickly became exhausted. Sydney tried to urge them on to no avail and he took to a tree where he somehow survived. Unfortunately the family lost their lives and were found the next day.

They are buried in the Raetihi Cemetery in an unmarked grave as;

AKERSTENJoseph M33 years19 March 1918
HARLEEdith Caroline33 years19 March 1918
HARLEEdna6 months19 March 1918

The fires raged in the area from Horopito to Mangaeturoa, along Waipuna Ridge, to the back of Morikau Station, Matahiwi Track and the west side of the Parapara Road to Kakatahi. Ohakune township miraculously escaped damage even though surrounded by fire. The fires also destroyed Rangataua and Karioi where mills and homesteads were destroyed.

The smoke was so thick and hung over the lower half of the North Island and the north bound ferry from Lyttelton could not find its way through the Wellington Heads. In Carterton, in the Wairarapa, schools and factories were closed for the day as there was not enough daylight for work.

Between 9 and 10am on the 19th March, the rain began to fall. Stumps and rotten logs continued to burn for several days but the main terror was over.

It was found that 100 residences had been destroyed, as well as many commercial and farm buildings. The dead stock were soon a problem and with no bulldozers to bury them, the stench became nauseating. The rebuilding of the lost buildings was also a problem due to the shortage of timber and many of the homeless lived in tents, boarding houses or the homes of friends until timber became available.

The winter of 1918 was exceptionally hard with several heavy falls of snow, some laying of the ground for over three weeks. Then in November came the Influenza Epidemic which struck the Waimarino severely. It was said that the quantities of smoke and ash inhaled by so many people at the time of the fire was a contributing factor to the diproportionately large number of deaths during the epidemic.

Government aid was soon authorised and the Waimarino slowly returned to normal. As you drive through this area today please take a thought for the residents of the area during those terrible days.

The following is a list of the properties lost in the Raetihi Town Board area:

A J PARKES - three new residences
ANDERSON shop and residence
Anglican Church
Anglican Vicarage
ASHMORE residence
BENNETT residence
BRADY residence
BROWN residence and stable
Charles HARRIS residence
COKER residence
Commercial Hotel Stables
County Council Chambers
DAVIS shop
DRURY residence
DRURY Sash & Door factory
F R JACKSON stock office
FAGG Brothers Store
FARRANT Residence
FLYER residence (FRYER)
G ANDERSON farm buildings
HAYDON Residence (Schoolmaster)
HENRY residence
HOOPER residence
HUGHES residence
J F PINCH stable
J G HARRIS residence
JENKINSON residence
LEONARD residence
LUCAS residence
Mat GREY residence
MORRIS residence
Mrs CAMERON residence
Nursing Home
OLWAY Butcher shop
P G SMITH residence and workshop next door
PARKES residence
Police Station
PURSER residence
Raetihi Dairy Companys Factory and managers office
Roman Catholic Church
SHAW residence
Stable
STANLEY - four new residences
SYKES Residence
Tim SULLIVAN residence
Town Board offices
TRAVER workshop
W H TUSTIN residence
WALLACE stables
WILSON residence

These are the saw mills that were destroyed during the fires;

Orata Mill (F J CARTER) - south of Horopito - mill, milled timber, 18 houses (leaving one)
Rangataua Timber Co (WILSON's), Valley Road - mill, timber, and all but one mill workers house
Mangawhero Timber Co (PEDERSEN's) - mill, timber, and houses
SYME's Mill, Valley Road - mill, timber and houses
MERSON's Mill, Ohakune Road - mill, timber, and houses
Paraeroa Sawmilling Co (HARRIS's) - mill, timber and houses
POWELL Process Co, Rangataua - mill, timber and houses
Rangataua Timber Co (WILSON's), Rangataua - mill, timber and houses
COLLIER, SON & ROSE, Mangateitei Rd - mill and timber
BENNETT and PUNCH, Mangateitei Rd, mill and timber
Wanganui Sash and Door, Karioi - mill, timber and houses

Some of the families of the area;

ASHWELL, Ameku Road, Raetihi
BARTRUM
BERRY, Ohura Road
BUSH, J A - manager of Rangataua Timber Co
BUSH, T, Makotuku
CONNOR, W
CURTIS, mill employee, Makotuku
DUTHIE
GRIFFEN, K
HANDLEY, John and family
LONDON, Mr, Makotuku
McCANN, P, Makotuku School
MITCHINSON, Frank
MORRIS, Makotuku
PARKER family, Pakihi
PESTEL, Billy
RIX, mill employee, Makotuku
ROBINSON, Kakatahi
RODGERS, mail coach driver
TANSEY family, Tohunga Road
WALDEGRAVE

A detailed account of the Raetihi Fire is to be found in the book In the Hills of the Waimarino - The Human Story of the Development of the District by Elizabeth C Allen (1984 Wanganui Newspapers) and New Zealand Tragedies - Fires and Firefighting by Gavin McLean (1992 Grantham House)

THE RAETIHI FIRE
Researched and written by J.W.D (Darcy) Perston as presented evidence to the Wanganui Court in about 1980. This is an extract from a much larger report.

a/ Historical Context
This major event occurred in the Raetihi – Ohakune district through the night of March 18 in the year 1918. According to newspaper reports it covered a wide are and destroyed a great deal of property such as woolsheds, houses, sawmills, bridges and shearers quarters etc. The fire evidently followed several months of very dry weather and was whipped up by a serve gale which also caused damage in other parts of New Zealand.

During this phase of development in the district, there was intensive clearing of the land for farming which resulted in extensive tracts of bush land being chopped, burned and semi-cleared to the state where it could be grassed. The scene then would have been one where there was still a large volume of logs and other debris littering the ground with frequent standing dead, damaged and semi-burnt material scattered throughout. Patches of green uncut bush would still have existed throughout the areas of development. Sawmilling activities would also have resulted in additional deterioration of the original bush cover.

This impression is supported by the appearance of some of Wilson’s semi-developed land on the 1945 aerial photographs.

Fire would have been the principal land clearing tool of the 1918 era and it is virtually certain that numbers of fires would have been burning simultaneously on properties all over the district at the time that the major fire was stirred up by the gale on March 18, 1918.

b/ Newspaper Reports
Our contention is that the Raetihi fire did not necessarily have its origins from one particular source but with a gale blowing a number of smaller fires could have been whipped up into a major front which descended upon the Raetihi locality. This contention is supported by the article “Visit to Burning Area” reported in the Manawatu Times of March 20th 1918 in which a reference is made to thousands of acres of dead trees and stumps blazing a few miles beyond Mangaweka. We consider that this fire had separate origins from the conflagration in the Raetihi district. Support for out theory of a number of different origins for the so-called ‘Raetihi Fire’ is contained in an article written by W. H. Scarrow in the local Raetihi newspaper. Mention is also made in the Wanganui Herals of 21st March 1918 of Morikau farm near Ranana where ‘Logging up fires had been burning there for some days when the sudden advent of the cyclone took charge of the flames and a fire that had promised to be beneficial was turned into a disaster”. In the same column, there are references to fire damage in Kaitieke, Owhango and Taumarunui districts.

The Wanganui Herald of Thursday March 21st 1918 reports that ‘Right down the Parapara Road on the Raetihi side, it was a mass of flames” and in the same issue a reference is made to “Serious Fires at Kakatahi”.

From these reports there is little doubt that some places situated down the Papapara Road south of Raetihi did suffer badly from fire.

There is however no proof that the same fire that engulfed Raetihi township continued southwards to cause the reported damage.

c/ Standing Forest Evidence
From existing evidence and past records of the area we doubt that fires spread eastwards onto the three lease areas from the Parapara. If this did occur, we are certain that the damage to standing bush was insignificant. Reasons are: -

d/ Specific Reference to Lease Areas
Reference is made to Ohotu Block in the Wanganui Herald of Saturday March 23rd 1918. In the report Malpas’s property is one of those stated to have “all fared badly”. Malpas’ property may have “fared badly” from the loss of implements, sheds, accommodation, livestock or other facilities but there is no reference to any standing bush having been burnt.

Until quite recently, the bush logged by Donaldson stood intact upon the property and there is still a small block of approximately 7 acres standing next to the woolshed on that property. Across the Oruakukuru Road from the Malpas’ lease a substantial area of virgin bush stood surrounding the Ararawa Gorge until at least 1948. None of this had been affected by large scale fire.

e/ Conclusion on Effect of Fire in Lease Areas
The “Raetihi Fire” was merely a broad name covering a series of fires of multiple origin, some of which burnt out a section of Raetihi township.

If fire or fires affected all or any of the three leases, there is no proof that they originated from the same sources as the ones that damaged the Raetihi township.

A strong likelihood exists of clearing fires being already alight on the three leases at the time the gale commenced.

The principal fuel through which the fires travelled were dry grass and old logging and clearing debris.

There are only brief references in any of the old records about standing bush being burnt in the district. It is therefore highly unlikely that significant damage if any, was caused to bush on the leases.

NEWSPAPER ARTICLES
USED AS EVIDENCE IN THE ABOVE REPORT

FIRES IN THE NORTH - Hundreds of People Ruined - MANAWATU TIMES, VOLUME XL, ISSUE 13840, 20 MARCH 1918
DESOLATION IN RAETIHI - WANGANUI HERALD, VOLUME LII, ISSUE 15464, 21 MARCH 1918
THE BUSH FIRES - MANAWATU TIMES, VOLUME XL, ISSUE 13841, 22 MARCH 1918
THE BUSH FIRES - Relief Urgently Needed - MANAWATU TIMES, VOLUME XL, ISSUE 13844, 26 MARCH 1918

FIRE OF RAETIHI
by W H SCARROW [undated article from the Wanganui Chronicle]

Disaster – fire, earthquake, flood and famine – they all provide sources of news.

Over the years “The Chronicle” files contain many reports of disastrous happenings which have affected New Zealand, such as the great earthquake in Napier in 1931, that in Murchison in 1929, the Tangiwai railway disaster in 1953.

Fortunately, the Wanganui district has been remarkably free of major disasters of that scope. Floods have troubled the area from time to time.

The most serious major disaster within the circulation district of “The Chronicle” was the already fresh-in-memory railway crash at Tangiwai, and the lesser mishap of a like nature which occurred near Ratana in 1938.

One of the worst news-provoking disasters in this area in the past century, however, was the great fire in the Raetihi district in March 1918. With a twist of irony, that blaze, regarded as New Zealand’s biggest ever, founded upon its ash, many acres of rich, productive soil.

The resultant heavy pall of smoke from the Raetihi fire delayed the dawn in far-away Christchurch, while in distant Wellington city, students and others climbed the heights ‘to see what was burning’.

Several factors contributed to the magnitude of the disaster: -

1/ A large area of bush had, through the years, been felled and burned off and grass seed sown, but the bulk of the timber remained to cumber the ground – logs, stumps and standing dead trees bleached in the sun for many years.

Furthermore, in many parts of the district large portions of bush were still standing, more or less in the virgin state – tall timber, festooned with moss and other vegetation well known for its fire-carrying capacity. The forest floor was deeply covered with the accumulated leaf-mould of centuries.

These blocks of bush, in many cases, were fringed by dead trees from previous fires. Added to the general fire hazard of the district were the worked over the areas of a score or more timber mills, together with the inevitable litter and leavings of the timber trade around each mill.

2/ Fire was the chief agent used in clearing the land of its burden of logs and stumps; especially was this so in dry weather, and the weather had been dry. It is more than likely that a hundred and one isolated fire were ready kindled when the third factor was introduced in the form of an 80 or 90 miles per hour hurricane from the north-east, which struck in the evening of that fateful day in March 1918.

First Sign of Damage

The first indication of real danger was a glow in the night sky to the north over the Main Trunk Line and Ruatiti localities. In a very short time a great area of country was a raging furnace of driving fire. Some hundreds of square miles were quickly involved as the fire advanced on a twenty-mile front and penetrated as much as 30 miles deep to the south and west. The speed of advance of the fire was fantastic. Burning vegetation, grit, dust and billowing smoke filled the air. Standing dead trees sent flaming wads of rotten wood half a mile or so ahead of the main body of fire. This starting of new fires made escape a difficult and dangerous undertaking to many, as all routes to safety were rapidly being closed.

Within the district and elsewhere great anxiety was felt for the local population as telephone lines were down and roads closed by fire, fallen trees and burned bridges. Inter-communication was almost nil.

Rescue Work

However, some splendid rescue work was carried out during the night, motor-cars for the most part were used to bring the people out from some of the worst places. As the fire increased in intensity the moving of families became so urgent that some confusion was inevitable. The whistling of a relief train indicated one rallying point and there were instances of young children, unable to give their names, being taken as far as Ohakune and Taihape for the night without the parents having a clue as to where they were.

Other groups huddled under bridges and culverts were running water gave some relief to smoke tortured eyes. Water seemed to be the one thing not on fire on that night of terror, but even so, trout in the streams suffered heavily, killed by the quantity of wood ash entering the water.

Still other groups of people assembled in the Drill Hall and theatre or in open spaces in the township, but even in the open spaces flying roofing iron became an additional peril. The unearthly roar of wind and fire was punctuated by resounding thuds and crashes as tree after tree failed to hold against the racking of the gale. And all the while, people were threading their way to safety through such conditions as these, high wind, smoke, fire and falling trees.

Desperate Fighting

By desperate fighting many buildings in the town were saved, after having caught alight several times. Furniture placed on the street for safety (?) would be seen to burn while the house from which it came would be saved. One car on rescue work was claimed by the flames.

Before dawn the wind dropped and welcome rain fell, thus averting further destruction. By ten o’clock next morning light was filtering through the smoke-laden atmosphere, revealing an amazing transformation from a green country-side to the desolation of a fire blackened wilderness.

One family of three (man, wife and child) had perished – trapped by fire in the Mangaeturoa Valley. Others there had had hair-breadth escapes. Fire had claimed at least forty-one dwellings, the dairy factory and the police station, several business premises, one church, 21 timber mills throughout the district, each with its cluster of cottages. The loss of sheds and out-buildings with farm machinery and implements was considerable, as also was the damage done to telephone and power lines. Sheep had perished in hundreds. Cattle and horses, in most cases, had been able to negotiate fences and move round to burnt-out areas, and so had fared better than the sheep. Many wooden bridges had been burned during the night, as well as miles of fences and square mile of pasture.

Relief Funds

The public of New Zealand subscribed £18,000 towards a relief fund. To this was added £10,000 by way of Government subsidy. The public also contributed used clothing in quantity and this filled a great need. A generous people had read the smoke signal aright and had responded promptly. A relief committee was set up to administer the funds. In addition to relief to those in need, loans from the fund were made available to those requiring temporary assistance in rehabilitating themselves by re-grassing, re-fencing and re-stocking of farms. With this help the district made a good recovery and all loans were repaid in a few years.


Raetihi - about 1904 - The photo was taken by John Adkins who lived in Raetihi in 1903/04 before moving to Pukekaha, about 30 miles north west of Raetihi. John started a small school there before moving to Oromahoe Native School in the far north.

Raetihi - 1917



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