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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)


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