Balmoral 1955 

The Balmoral Forest Fire was the first significant fire that challenged the fire protection system created by the Forest Service in the aftermath of the 1946 Taupo fire and the new Forest and Rural Fires Act 1947. It holds the record for being the second largest plantation fire in NZ and, at 2991 ha,  the largest for a state or government owned exotic forest. 50 years after the event, an account was written by retired ranger John Ward QSM to mark the 15 years since the formation of the National Rural Fire Authority. John1 concluded that 'the dramatic events of November 25-28 were due firstly to an element of bad luck. This was coupled with extreme weather patterns resulting in a fire beyond the scope and experience of most the personnel involved. It was a classic case of northwest induced re-ignition, a grim fact of life on the Canterbury scene, before and since'. 

In 1955, the Balmoral Forest was the largest in Canterbury, comprising 7446 ha of radiata, corsican and ponderosa pine. The ages of the compartments were in the range 24 to 32 years2. The land is flat, and summers are hot and dry; average rainfall 675 mm. In the four weeks before the fire, only 2 mm of rain was recorded at Balmoral HQ, but there had been 0.6 mm of rain 3 days before the major run. On the day of the fire, 25 November, there was a strong northwesterly wind with showers. The fire weather indices were FFMC=88.5, DMC=64, DC=205, ISI=55, BUI=72, and FWI=792

Friday Night 25 - 26 November
At about 2200h, residents near an old mill on the corner of Hocking Rd and Balmoral Station Rd, heard loud noises and discovered that the building was burning fiercely. It was used by the Forest Service for storage, and contained four large trucks, a bulldozer and other items. It also had the only telephone in the area. A resident drove to the Balmoral Forest HQ 6 km away to raise the alarm, and the duty officer immediately despatched all available men and engines. The mill had been almost completely destroyed by the time they arrived (only one GMC truck survived), and the crews were deployed to extinguish spot fires in the adjacent forest, south-east of the railway line and on both sides of the Balmoral Station Rd (see modern image opposite). Most of these were quickly dealt with, other than a fire in heavy logging slash on the west side of the road that extended to about 0.4 ha. By 2300, 40 men and 7 units were on the scene, including three appliances from the Culverden Volunteer Fire Brigade. The latter left at 0240, and forestry staff continued mopping up and patrolling. At 0445, forestry crews were withdrawn, leaving 3 men to continuing patrolling. Fire equipment was left at the incident, and at 0630, light rain was falling.

Saturday 26 November
One small flareup occurred at 0715 as the nor'wester strengthened. Reinforcements were brought in, and the reignition was quickly put out. The reinforcements withdrew, leaving the original 3-man patrol and 8 contractors on site. At 0900, the wind had reached near gale, averaging 50-61 kph. At 0940, the patrol spotted flames from another reignition. A direct attack was mounted using 10 men, fire engines and a bulldozer. The wind was now gale force, and the fire could not be contained. It was spotting in 20m leaps, and spread quickly to cover 4 ha in the south and south-east direction. Reinforcements arrived about 1000. At around 1030, the gale exceeded 112 kph, three spot fires on the edge of the forest and an uncontrollable crown took off towards the Culverden Rd, SH7, 7 km away.

By 1130, the fire run had fanned out to a 3.2 km front, and had traveled 3.2 km through the forest. Priorities were to control the original slash burn on the west side of Balmoral Station Rd that still had potential to start other fires; to stop the flank of main fire from jumping west across Balmoral Station Rd; and to stop the main fire by burning out from forest compartment firebreaks to the south-east of the main head. The burnout attempts failed.  By 1400, the head had crossed SH7 at several points, and was burning strongly heading to the Hurunui River. The fire was burning along the Balmoral Station Rd, and 200 men were posted there to ensure that the firebreak that the road represented would not be breached. A 2.4 km break was being built to protect the entire northern flank at the rear of the fire. Another 3.6 km of fire breaks were completed during the day. Most of Balmoral Village was evacuated. 

At 1700, the wind changed to the southwest, still at gale force, and the constructed  fire breaks were breached or outflanked. All crews and equipment had to be withdrawn quickly; one bulldozer was abandoned and partly damaged. An hour later, the wind swung back to the northwest, driving many fires in new directions, with another crossing SH7. Fresh crews were arriving, including an Army detachment of two officers and 50 other ranks. The forestry crews were being drawn from all over the country, including staff from the North Island. Time and again, crews had to retreat from their positions as they saw 'gaseous clouds exploding in great balls of fire 60-70m above the tree tops'.

Sunday 27 November
Some slight abatement in conditions was lost by 1300 as the northwest wind again reached gale force again, and relative humidity fell to 37%. At 1530, the wind calmed, then turned to a gale from the southwest, and then quickly through east to become a northeaster. Fires erupted along the whole of the northern flank. In spite of resources being rushed to hold the railway break along the north flank, spot fires jumped the 100 m clearing, and 2 crown fires and 1 surface fire started at the same time. These placed at risk the unburnt two-thirds of the forest (4452 ha), and further reinforcements were requested. After 30 minutes, these spots fires were controlled. 

Monday 28 November
Once the fire across the railway was contained, the fire to the south had practically burnt itself out, and the crisis was over. Relative humidity rose steadily during the day and by 2100, heavy rain set in, amounting to 25 mm. Mopping up and patrolling continued until 7 December. 

1562 ha (52% of the total 2991 ha burnt) of radiata and corsican pine were considered salvageable. A Commission of Enquiry met in February 1956, and the Commission found that several officers had been remiss in not ensuring that adequate patrols were in place, and in misjudging the continuance of rainy weather during the start of the fire. Staff were exonerated as causing the the major outbreak of fire. Indeed, the Commission found that from the time of the initial explosive outbreak, the conduct of all officers involved was beyond reproach. The enquiry prompted an examination of many facets of forest and fire protection within the Forest Service and the production forestry sector.

The number of personnel in fighting the fire is unknown. In additional to Forest Staff and contractors, NZFS trucks from Waiau and Culverden were present (records show 6 fire engines in total), and considerable help was received from Hurunui farmers. Army personnel totaled 12 officers and 385 other ranks. Other than the old saw mill that was the cause of the forest fire, no structures were lost. One crew, sent with a fire engine to protect a forestry house on the SH7 at the northeast corner of the forest, had a desperate struggle. They were set in position when the crown fire went through above them at tremendous speed, dropping burning cones and debris to start spot fires around them. They withdrew, and lost a few lengths of hose, but regrouped to successfully deal with the following surface fire. 

Viewed from a 2005 perspective, John Ward1 thought that aerial suppression may have helped when the wind dropped on the Sunday afternoon, but questioned if we would have enough men to patrol the Balmoral Station Rd and keep the main forest block safe.

1. John Ward, The Balmoral Forest Fire of November 1955, NRFA, Nov. 2005.
2. HG Pearce and ME Alexander, reprinted in FRI Fire Technology Transfer Note 3, April 1994.