Bill Studholme

Chief Executive

Selwyn Plantation Board




This report will provide the basis for a debrief with all parties involved in the fire. There has been a lot written, both publicly and privately, there have been opinions formed, there were successes and mistakes made. The report will summarise a perspective on how the fire was dealt with.


The fire can be broken down into three phases.


(a)   The initial fire which was fought from 8 December 1988 and by the morning of 12 December 1988 appeared to have been controlled. Fire fighting was under a relatively simple command structure. It was conducted under the authority of the Principal Rural Fire Officer of Ellesmere County, and was a fire which was of a size that could be controlled on a local scale using the resources of the Selwyn Fire Group, volunteers, Defence Department and private contractors.


(b)   The second phase began at 2.30 pm on 12 December when a north‑westerly wind gusting over 50 knots, rekindled the original fire and rapidly expanded the area of burn tenfold. This second fire extended local forces and on the morning of 13 December the decision was made to involve the Ministry of Forestry and seek other assistance. The fire at this stage had escalated beyond the resources available at a local level, and was threatening to increase by a further factor of ten. The prime consideration in fighting this fire was to contain it within the burnt area.


(c)   The continual surveillance and containment of the fire within the area already burnt. This is still continuing.




1.      General

For some time now the Board has been concerned at the dismantling of the national forest and rural fire fighting capability by Government, and the inability of Government to replace it with anything else. The Chairman' s report year ended 31 March 1987 drew attention to this and stated:


"The change in Government's administration of rural fire fighting has meant that equipment and manpower, which was readily available in the past, may not be so readily available in the future and has forced the Board into a position where it has to purchase additional plant to increase its own fire fighting capability. The problem is not in the purchase of equipment but in the maintenance of that equipment. This is the reason that over the years there has been a resistance to purchase specialised plant such as monsoon buckets."


Concern about what had occurred was again commented on in the Chairman's report year ended 31 March 1988.


"The demise of the Forest Service and consequent dismantling of what had been a very effective and efficient rural fire fighting force, has caused the Board, and indeed all other rural land owners, considerable problems. There has always been a shortage of properly trained, skilled people available in times of emergency. There was a backup force from the Forest Service always available. These people have disappeared and the agencies which have taken over the functions of the Forest Service no longer have either the ability or the finance to maintain a force of skilled fire fighters.


The Board has increased its own fire fighting capacity quite significantly. The Board now has several fully equipped' fire units and is the owner of quite large quantities of specialist equipment needed in the event of a rural fire. The problem of course is still skilled personnel to use the equipment. That will be a problem for some time in the future."


Late in 1988 it was indicated that Government was contemplating the future of the Forest and Rural Fires Act itself. The following submission was made to the Chief Protection officer, Minister of Forestry.


"I am of the opinion that -


(1) Rural areas need the Forest & Rural Fires Act to:


(a) Define responsibility;

(b) Confer the necessary authorities:

(c) Provide a rationally evolved base from which to set up the organisation to fight a rural fire;

(d) Detail the necessary organisational arrangements at a fire.


(2) The Act is well known and understood and has evolved because of a need to provide backing to ensure a cool, calm approach to a fire.


(3) The Forest & Rural Fires Act orchestrates and coordinates effort at a fire and as a consequence, makes the fighting of rural fires very much more efficient.


(4) The Ministry of Forestry is the appropriate body to administer the legislation. The job presently being done is efficient and there are still sufficient trained and knowledgeable people to be effective. In the fullness of time this effectiveness must decrease and there will be a consequential evolution of the Ministry's function to the Fire Service Commission.


(5) It is essential that the rural fire control mechanisms that have taken 40‑50 years to evolve, are not destroyed. In 1948, the Forest & Rural Fires Act was seen as a milestone. That milestone must be built upon and in the fullness of time the legislation must be strengthened so that people, property and national assets in the countryside can continue to enjoy the proper measure of protection."


In addition, at the Association for Local Government Engineers of New Zealand conference 13 June 1988, a paper was delivered on the rural fire scene that included a statement to the effect that -


"The future is seen as a re‑emergence of the New Zealand Fire Service type organisation having:


(a) Trained and available personnel;

(b) A pool of maintained and available equipment;

(c) An organisation that can point out to Government and have them recognise this responsibility, particularly in terms of fire protection as part of the national good."


2.         Weather

Dr Neil Cherry, the Lincoln College meteorologist, in analysing the weather for 1988, observed that


"For the year the rainfall at 308.6 mm was the lowest ever recorded at Lincoln. The previous lowest annual total was 338 mm in 1915. It was also the lowest July to December total with 126.1 mm compared to the previous lowest of 139 mm in 1915. The mean annual temperature of 12.4 oC is the highest since the record of 12.9 oC was recorded in 1924. Allowing for the fact that the climate station was highly sheltered before the Second World War, 1988 was warmer than the previous recorded "hot" year. The mean annual wind speed was the highest since reliable wind speed records began in 1896. Sunshine hours at 2366 was the highest recorded for Christchurch and the highest of any recorded at Lincoln since sunshine records began in 1930.


Thus 1988 was the record windiest, sunniest, hottest and driest year.”­


Weather records which have been kept at Darfield since 1919, show a similar trend. Mean temperatures for the last two years have been well above the norms and this combined with the mean temperature for December which was 24% above the norm. Evaporation too for the last two years has shown a trend of increasing significantly above the norm. Rainfall too for the last 24 months at 1189 mm has been much less than normal. It is the driest 24 month period that the Board has ever experienced, and it is significant that those months where rainfall was higher than the norm, were February and March of 1987 at the very beginning of the cycle.


3.         The Forest

The forest was in an extremely dry condition at the beginning of December. There is a significant proportion of visible tree die back, estimated in the Dunsandel /Bankside region to be approximately 5%. The forests burnt are detailed in the table below.


                                                                                     PLANTING           AREA    TOTAL STEM

PLANTATION                             COMPARTMENT   YEAR                  HA           VOLUME


Burgess's                                              34.01                  1978                 48.56                4052

                                                               34.02                  1980                 13.39                  568

                                                               34.03                  1982                .14.27                  NIA

Robinson's                                            35.01                  1978                 82.12                6262

Wattle 2 Chain Rd                                36.06                  1971                  2.15                   340

                                                               36.10                  1974                  4.02                   224

                                                                                                                    164.51            11446


Burgess's Plantation was second crop radiata pine. The area was partly blown in the Wahine Storm of 1968 and further wind blown in the gales in 1975. The areas were logged, windrowed and replanted in 1978, 1980, and 1982. Robinson's Plantation was second rotation radiata pine and planted in 1978 following logging, clearing and windrowing as a result of the 1975 gales. Wattle Two Chain Road is a third generation forest area originally planted in wattle. Subsequently planted in radiata, clearfelled in 1965 and 1969 and windrowed and replanted in radiata pine in 1971 and 1974. All the areas apart from the 1982 age class, had been pruned and thinned at age seven years. The Burgess's area had some gorse and scrub, Robinson's less gorse but some underscrub, and Wattle Two Chain Road had an understorey of wattle. Both Burgess's and Robinson's had been very heavily grazed over the summer immediately before the fire. There was very little grass and indeed even the gorse and broom had been heavily grazed by a large mob of merino sheep.


The burnt area was surrounded and had internal fire breaks of approximately 20 ha, which had been recently cultivated and were vegetation free.




1.         The Cause

There was a severe electrical storm in the area on the night of 7 December. An insulator on the Central Canterbury Electric Power Board's line along Two Chain Road was struck and damaged by lightning. Fork lightning was seen to strike the ground by several of the neighbours, and meteorological records show that there was a severe electrical storm over that part of the plains.


Two other fires in Board plantations have been attributed as started by lightning since 1911. One of these was in the same area and it is recorded in the annual report year ended 31 March 1955, that "One fire occurred in the Board's plantations and its cause is of interest, for it is the first known fire due to lightning strikes since the Board was established. It was at Shellocks Plantation, Bankside and during a storm lightning struck a eucalypt tree just inside the southern boundary. Apart from burning 15 chains of gorse fence, there was no damage."


The Burgess Plantation fire was a little different insomuch as subsequent to the electrical storm, there was relatively still air and there was the opportunity for a fire kindled in such a way to quietly build up heat. At 8.00 am it is understood that pupils travelling on the school bus noted and discussed with the driver the fact that there was a fire in the plantation and that there would be activity there later on in the day. Several of the Board's neighbours also noted smoke early and throughout the morning and they too did nothing about it.


The cause of the fire is attributable to the fact that there was an electrical storm in the area. All other possibilities have been investigated and there is no evidence of any other cause of the fire. All indications are that it was started by lightning and that it was as severe as it was because those people who saw it in its early stages did nothing about reporting it.


2.      Suppression

At 2.15 pm two members of the Board's staff at different hill forests noted the smoke. The Board's office was immediately notified by radio and the Malvern and Ellesmere counties, the fire authorities, were called. It took until approximately 3.00 pm before the fire was located and the brigades called. At this stage there was a light northeast wind and the fire, which had burnt for at least 12 hours, had a good hold in several windrows in the 1982 age class of Burgess's. At the same time dozers and diggers were ordered. Ian Ferguson's Fiat dozer (700HP), one Eemcee digger, and David Gamble's D8, the Malvern County Drott, Ellesmere County loader, and water tankers arrived at the scene. In addition there were volunteer fire brigades from Dunsandel, Mead, Rakaia, Hororata, Burnham Camp Fire Brigade and others.


At approximately 5.00 pm and despite the fact that they were not forecast, there were some strong gusts of northwest wind which pushed the fire into the 1980 age class. Immediately helicopters were ordered and four machines were used ‑ two Iroquios and two Squirrels. All these machines worked through until approximately 11.00 pm. The combined efforts of helicopters, local volunteer fire brigades, the Defence department, earthmoving machinery from Malvern and Ellesmere counties, contractors (Eemcee, David Gamble and Ian Ferguson), Board staff and large numbers of volunteers, had by 1.00 pm controlled the fire.


Phase one of the fire concentrated on dozing out windrows, damping down hot spots and forming a firebreak. By the morning of 12 December the fire appeared to be well under control. A five chain wide firebreak had been formed between the unburnt trees, all windrows had been broken out, all visible hot spots had been treated and the area was being constantly patrolled and any further emerging hot spots were immediately dealt with. The delicacy of the situation was apparent to Board staff. At this stage the fire had been contained to approximately a 25 ha area. By late morning of 12 December, the dampening down process and widening of firebreaks was continuing in an orderly fashion in light northwest winds.


Phase two of the operation started at approximately 2.30 pm. At about 2.00 pm on 12 December, a northwest wind gusted over 50 knots. The temperatures were in the 30's and humidity was low. The situation was explosive. The work that had been done in previous days had turned the soil at Burgess's Plantation into a very fine dust. The northwest wind resulted in a dust storm which made it impossible for men to move. At approximately 3.00 pm a southwest change with winds initially gusting to 50 knots, pushed the fire to the north. Within five hours the fire had expanded from 25 ha to approximately 160 ha.


The amount of gear used in this second fire, was about four times as much as had been previously used. It took a concerted effort. by large numbers of bulldozers, helicopters, water carts, diggers and men working until 22 December, until the fire was contained.


After that, the third phase started where there was general surveillance and continual dampening down of hot spots. At this stage most of the heavy machinery was stood down and patrols were maintained by the Army, the Board's staff and also aerially by a helicopter mounted infra‑red camera. This was a vital piece of equipment to locate hot spots and ensure that they were treated properly.


3.       Fire Command

The fire was fought under the authority of Ray Anderson, Principal Rural Fire officer for Ellesmere County. Headquarters for the fire was the Selwyn Plantation Board's office at Darfield and from 8 until 13 December, fire bosses and on-site control of the fire were in the hands of Board staff and the Board's fire officers.


As a result of the breakout of the fire and its quantum leap in size on the afternoon of 12 December, a fire strategy meeting was held on the morning of 13th. This involved representatives of all the Selwyn Fire Group (Malvern, Ellesmere and Paparua counties and the Selwyn Plantation Board), the NZ Fire Service and Marsh McLennan. As a consequence of this meeting, it was resolved to fight the fire under the Forest & Rural Fires Act rather than invoke the Civil Defence Act, and that the Ministry of Forestry be contacted to provide the necessary command structure for coordination between the Fire Service, Ministry of Defence and the territorial local authorities.


By the afternoon of 13 December the Chief Protection Officer for the Ministry of Forestry, Mr Neill Cooper, in consultation with Mr Roger Estell of Marsh MeLennan, and the Principal Rural Fire Officer and the Chief Executive of the Selwyn Plantation Board had drafted a set of fire orders which, amongst other things, contained a command structure. This command structure detailed the levels of command from the Principal Rural Fire Officer through to various sectors. Initially four sectors were identified and this was ultimately enlarged to five. All fire orders are appended to this report and the chain of command can be seen in an examination of them.


The breaking of the fire into sectors, the daily publication and promulgation of written instructions and the fact that command structures were rapidly disseminated through all those working on the fire, was vital in final control. There were some initial difficulties containing certain elements within their sectors, however ultimately it worked well and indeed without such a formal command and control structure, a fire of this size would have been difficult to fight. The overall command was in the hands of the Principal Rural Fire officer Ellesmere County, Mr Ray Anderson, who deputised the Board's Chief Executive and a daily "Fire Boss" duty roster was drawn up.


4.      Fire Headquarters

The overall fire headquarters were at the Board's office at Darfield. However, after the commencement of phase two, caravans and more comfortable field headquarters were set up as a fire command centre at the northwest corner of Robinson's Plantation. This was the centre of activities for the "Fire Boss" and was in intimate contact with the headquarters at the Board’’s office and had sufficient facilities to control a large fire. The location of the field headquarters was chosen as it was upwind of the fire yet close to the northwest corner of Robinson's Plantation. It had good road access and was also alongside a main water race which ran across the northern edge of the plantation and provided a water flow in excess of 4000 litres/minute. This was the major water source for the fire.



This sector was defined as that part of Wattle Two Chain Road Plantation to the southeast of Two Chain Road and contained the area of potentially the most risk. This was an area from which the fire, had the wind not changed from northwest to southwest on the afternoon of 12th, would have moved out to the Main South Road. As it was, there were a number of hot spots treated in this very closely patrolled area. Firebreaks were bulldozed around the burnt areas of Sector One. It is unfortunate that some of these firebreaks were bulldozed outwards and that in two places, hot spots were located in the unburnt edge of the firebreak. The area of Sector One, however, was continually patrolled and monitored.


At 0600 hours on 14 December, a two helicopter pass of fire retardant was made along the edge of the burnt area of Sector One from Two Chain Road to the transmission line, a length of about 3 km. This retardant (Firetrol 936) was obtained from the Department of Conservation and spread at the dilution rate of 1:10 or 40 litres of chemical per monsoon bucket. Each monsoon bucket load covered 200 metres of trees. The application of Firetrol was pivotal to the early containment of the fire. Fireproofing of the northern edge of the Wattle Two Chain Road block would reduce the effect of sparks should the northwest wind become strong enough to produce them.


On the morning of 14 December a mobile sprinkler system, run by Wajax pumps, was set up along the easternmost edge of the major burn in Wattle Two Chain Road. The sprinkler system was maintained until 23 December. Sector One accounted for a lot of resource and was the subject of constant surveillance with the infra‑red equipment as this was the achilles heel of the whole operation.



Sector Two was the southern edge of Burgess's Plantation and extended back into the unburnt trees on the edge of Tilson's Plantation. This sector was given to the Department of Defence who were responsible for moving in behind the bulldozers and digging out and damping down hot spots. This too was a very sensitive area as the standing forest on the southwestern edge of the fire constituted an enormous risk.


A sprinkler system was erected along the edge of that area on 17 December and was maintained until 23 December. This second line and a third line, run from Two Chain Road back into Sector One, was alternated with a line along the southern edge of Sector Two and a smaller temporary line to the west. These were operated by about one kilometre of standard irrigation pipes which local farmers loaned regardless of their own needs in the drought. The pipes were powered by four HSP's pumping in relay from a major water race via 90 mm hoselines and applied some 500 gallons of water per minute. The irrigation equipment was instrumental in fireproofing the unburnt areas, raising the humidity of the unburnt forest and containing the fire in the area of the original burn.



Sector Three involved the heavy earthmoving machinery and tankers. This was a mobile sector and started at the southwestern edge of Burgess's Plantation and moved methodically through ripping windrow by windrow breaking out, damping down and controlling the burn. The amount of heavy machinery on site was considerable and an examination of the fire orders will show that at the peak, there were five bulldozers of D8 size, four diggers, three lighter dozers, several loaders and a number of other items of earthmoving plant.


The "Machinery Boss" whose task it was to organise and coordinate this effort, had a difficult job. The efforts put in by various county overseers and also by the Christchurch City Council were really quite considerable. Without this sort of organisational ability and control, the fire certainly would not have been controlled as well as it was.



Sector Four was the land line to supply both sprinklers and for monsoon bucket loading in the event of the need to spread fire retardant in large quantities. This sector was under the control of the Fire Service who did a splendid job maintaining an around the clock, eight man team who kept a continuous water supply using HSP pumps. The land line was through 90 m hose and the Fire Service had additional lengths of 70 mm hose and portable pumps ready to mount a large monsoon bucket filling operation should the need arise.



Sector Five was the aerial fire fighting sector and that was on standby from 13 December for most of the time. There were, however, considerable resources of foam, fire retardant and monsoon buckets available should the need arise. When the weather became unfavourable helicopters were flown in and held on site. They were used in a reconnaissance role when the northwest wind raised dust which may have masked a flare‑up.



At the initial flare-up stage, helicopters were extensively` used both on 8 and 12 December and were instrumental in getting the fire under control. They are expensive items of plant and items which must be used properly to be cost effective. On the evening of 8 December, there was ground contact with helicopters via a handheld portable belonging to Garden City Helicopters. There were also communications by the Air Force's Iriquois, however both these facilities were tenuous to say the least. On the evening of 12 December there were communications via Wyndham Helicopters, however again this, whilst adequate, was certainly not perfect. The use of chemicals to improve the effectiveness of water was vital, however there is an obvious need for some training and pre‑briefing, both for the helicopter operators, the loading crews and those people associated with the operation.


Without the use of helicopters this fire would not have been stopped and certainly the presence of helicopters in the initial stages of the fire were vital and on balance, were very effective. One dozer operator reported that had an Iriquois not doused him with water during the second phase, that he would have had considerable difficulty in getting both himself and his machine out of the fire which had surrounded him.



Murray Dudfield of the Ministry of Forestry arranged for four hourly weather forecasts to be faxed from the Meteorological office in Wellington. These were forecasts specific to the Dunsandel area and were invaluable in planning operations and in determining the strategy for fighting the fire. The quality of these forecasts was extremely high, and their accuracy quite precise.



Timberlands Ltd, via the Ministry of Forestry, loaned two infra‑red cameras. One was a hand held camera used in the initial stages of the fire and was extremely useful in detecting numerous hot spots in both Sector One and Two. Timberlands also provided a helicopter mounted infra‑red camera which has regularly scanned the area since the fire. The last. scan was on 24 January when five hot spots were detected. Infra‑red surveillance will continue until no further hot spots are found. The use of this equipment is essential to ensure the fire remains contained.



The use of heavy bulldozers, diggers, loaders and water tankers was an important part in the containment of this fire. The flat terrain made it possible for their very effective and efficient use. At no stage was access a problem. The fact that there is a considerable amount of machinery on the site, coupled with the very dry weather and fine soils of the area, meant that there was a depth of dust which, as well as causing visibility problems, also caused great difficulty in keeping motors running. The City Council provided a grease truck with a mechanic in continuous attendance who had an almost full time job cleaning out air filters. The Board also provided a mechanic on a regular basis to check oils, complete minor repairs, and to make sure that the dust did not cause any major items of plant to break down.




1.      Electricity

A temporary mains power supply was installed at fire headquarters


2.      Fuel and oil

Arrangements were made with the Board's normal supplier that a fuel tanker carrying both petrol and diesel would arrive on site at regular pre‑arranged intervals. Of all the arrangements made, it is sad to have to record that the supply of fuel was the most difficult arrangement made. Its supply by a multi‑national company was certainly not made easy. It appeared to those at the f ire base, after the company had run the whole operation out of diesel fuel on two occasions, that because the quantities of fuel being used were somewhat less than a tanker would normally discharge in the course of a day, the company had great reluctance in providing it. The problem lay, it seemed, with the company rather than with the drivers, who once they were on the site, operated cheerfully and with determination. It was an indictment on the company that it required contact with senior company officials in Wellington before, what was at best, a half‑hearted attempt to supply fuel could be arranged.


3.      Chemicals

There were three distinct types of chemicals used at the fire.


(a) Hydroblender capsules and detergents.

These were used on the fire itself through pumps with great effect. The effectiveness of water with surfactant added was increased and spectacularly better than using plain water. Surfactants were also used in monsoon operations. The addition of hydroblender capsules in the bucket appeared to make that water much more effective.

 (b) Foam

Some Forexpan foam was used with the second monsoon bucket operation. Difficulties were experienced in adding the foam to the monsoon bucket because of the lack of training and also the lack of knowledge. Despite this there is no doubt that the effectiveness of water applied by monsoon bucket to which 1% of foam has been added, is greatly increased compared to straight water or water with a hydroblender capsule.

(c) Fire retardant

Unfortunately some fire retardant was used at less than, optimal mixtures onto the fire itself. Some fire retardant was used with great effect to lay firebreaks before oncoming flames.


*    Firetrol or Cetronics 936: This was laid as a two bucket wide pass along three kilometres of Wattle Two Chain Road Plantation.

*    Silvatect: 15 tonnes of Silvatect were brought onto the site and had the fire shown any threatening signs, or had a northwest wind come through before all windrows had been broken out, it was resolved that the whole of Wattle Two Chain Road and Shellocks Plantations from Two Chain Road to the power pylons, an area of 177 ha, would be treated with Silvatect. It was estimated that this operation would have taken 40 helicopter hours to apply and would have cost in the region of $130,000. This operation would have assisted in keeping the fire from spreading down to the Main South Road in which event it would have been totally uncontrollable. The Ministry of Defence provided six tonnes of Silvatect from Waiouru. The balance was freighted down overnight from Auckland. The cooperation of the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Forestry, Phillips and Smith, Marsh McLennan, Wyndam, Mt Hutt and Whirlwide Helicopters in setting up this operation was appreciated. The fact that the weather remained favourable and that the fire was brought under control under favourable weather conditions meant that this operation did not need to proceed.




The Selwyn Fire Group (apart from Paparua County) has a shared channel. The Department of Conservation's mobile repeater was borrowed after 12 December and it certainly made fire ground communications between headquarters and most people on the site extremely good. There is, however, a real problem with communications, and the provision of a permanent fire channel would certainly make life a lot easier. There was difficulty in communicating by radio with the Ministry of Defence, Fire Service Commission, other counties and contractors.


The provision of a rural fire fighting channel which would be universal over the whole country, if that is possible, would certainly be an enormous advantage. A telephone was installed at the headquarters site. This was invaluable as was a fax machine operating on the same line.


Press Statements

With a fire of this size there is an obvious interest by the press. Rather than giving ad hoc interviews and making a variety of ad hoc statements generally under pressure, it was resolved that a daily or two daily press statements would be made. This proved invaluable as it gave a carefully worded and considered statement, provided an informal record of the fire on a day to day basis, and kept the press informed in a responsible fashion.


The press statements were faxed around the country and certainly seemed to satisfy the press and reduced the amount of time spent telling people about what was going on. The responsible and accurate reporting by television,. radio and the press of the fire was greatly appreciated.




The provision of food and sustenance for fire fighters is always difficult at any rural fire. At the Burgess Plantation fire both the Red Cross and Salvation Army attended initially. The Salvation Army continued and were the major suppliers of food and sustenance to the firemen. A number of people remarked how amazing it was to see a cheerful Salvation Army worker dispensing fresh sandwiches and drink from their mobile 4WD Toyota. at the fire face and how much they were appreciated. Indeed, without the efforts of the Salvation Army, the Dunsandel fire would have been a much more miserable place. In the early and last stages of the fire, the Red Cross, too, attended and provided cheerful constant food, drink and companionship and indeed helped to keep very tired people going under extraordinarily difficult conditions.




This report, and appended fire orders, maps, press statements and Board reports is a record of the fire from my perspective.


The Board are extraordinarily appreciative of the work done by its own staff, other local authorities, numerous contractors, volunteer fire brigades, various Government agencies, and the large numbers of volunteers. The coordinated efforts of all people who helped were quite considerable. The amount of energy spent on the fire and the work that went into controlling it, were quite remarkable. This report is put forward essentially as a way to ensure that mistakes made can be rectified next time and the successes can be built upon.