Fire Control on the West Coast

The Story and the Statistics


Alan Flux


The West Coast Rural Fire District was gazetted on 6 November 1997 and came into effect on 4 December 1997. I started as the Principal Rural Fire Officer on 1 December 1997. The West Coast Rural Fire District comprises the amalgamation of four previous Rural Fire Authorities. These were the District Councils of Buller, Grey and Westland, and the Department of Conservation. Effectively there was a fifth, Timberlands West Coast. Timberlands West Coast was initially a Fire Authority when the Forest Service became defunct but later became a Registered Forest Area. This is the first amalgamated Rural Fire District of its kind in New Zealand. It was initiated in 1951 and finally came to fruition 46 years later. In his Annual Report (1952) the Director General of the Forest Service stated:


“In the Westland Conservancy, a Board has been formed to co‑ordinate fire control in the Westland and Grey Counties. The Board consists of two members each from the County Councils and one member each from the Lands Department, the Forest Service, and the Greymouth Fire Board. The interpenetrating of rough grazing‑runs and extensive areas of cutover forest lands on the West Coast constitute a fire hazard of such magnitude that co‑operation between all the Fire Authorities is essential if serious fire are to be avoided. The Forest Service, while retaining the sole responsibility for protecting State Forests, has agreed to assist the county authorities during bad fire periods by supplying patrols, equipment, and personnel, and also give special attention to fire publicity on the West Coast."


It is also the largest, covering 3.5 million hectares. It is also the longest, stretching 550 kilometres as the crow flies, or 650 kilometres by road; equivalent from Auckland to Wellington. It is also the highest, encompassing most of the Southern Alps with Mt Cook at 3764 metres.


The West Coast is unique in being proactive and innovative; perhaps the carryover from the gold mining and timber milling days . It was the first area in New Zealand to have a paid fire patrol. The Ranger travelled on a tramway. It also has the longest burning rural fire; a coal mine at Waitutu that has bellowed smoke since 1951. It also was the first area to establish a lookout: they used an 82 feet high standing rimu. The West Coast is indeed a land apart. West Coasters make their own rules; have done for years. When pubs closed in other parts of New Zealand, they remained open on the Coast. On the coast, expect the unexpected (like defeating the Auckland rugby team in 1976).


But why fire control on the West Coast. It is renowned for its wet climate. It has been estimated that over 23 billion gallons (100 billion litres) of water fall on the West Coast Rural Fire District each year. Enough to supply Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin with its water supply for 140 years, and none of it chlorinated. It is an area that dominates New Zealand's rainfall records:


*  It has the highest recorded mean annual rainfall: 14140 mm at Frews Hut in the Hokitika catchment.

*  It has the highest recorded rainfall in 12 months: 10670 mm at Frews Hut in the Hokitika catchment.

*  It has the highest rainfall in a calendar year: 10210 mm at Frews Hut in the Hokitika  catchment.

*  It has the highest rainfall in a calendar month: 2009 mm, Rapid Creek Hokitika catchment.

*  It has the highest rainfall in 15 days: 1926 mm, Rapid Creek Hokitika catchment.

*  It has the highest rainfall in 5 days: 1272 mm, Rapid Creek Hokitika catchment.

*  It has the highest rainfall in 24 hours. 582 mm, Rapid Creek Hokitika catchment.

*  Rainfall is fairly evenly spread throughout the year, and during the fire season.


So why worry about fire control on the West Coast?


Well, rainfall does not mean you do not have fires. The largest bush fire in New Zealand history was what is now known of the Raetihi fire of 1918. It partially destroyed the townships of Raetihi, Ohakune, Horopito, and Rangatau, as well as a Maori Pa, 13 sawmills and their houses. 58 shops and houses in Raetahi alone were completely destroyed. An estimated 200,000 hectares was burnt and smoke from the fire was seen 250 kilometres away in Wellington. The Raetihi area has a rainfall pattern not dissimilar to the West Coast. It’s rainfall is from 1727 mm at Raetihi) to 3556 mm (at Chateau Tongariro), and from 171 (Raetihi) to 214 (Chateau Tongariro) raindays. Westport has 186 and Greymouth 175 raindays a year but Totara Flat, in the heart of the exotic tree growing area of the coast has 167.


Fire Control on the West Coast is a critical issue, in many ways more so than areas on the East Coast which have higher fire risks and higher profile.


1.   The West Coast does have fires. There have been some significant fires.


Prior to the Second World War, there were some rampant, uncontrolled fires in Buller and the West Coast as land was cleared for farming and access for gold mining, and as a result of fires caused by sparks from bush locomotives and steam haulers. Old timers speak of fires burning for days over wide stretches of land in the Grey and Inangahua valleys, around Westport and inland between the Taramakau and Mikonui rivers. No attempt was made to put them out; they were regarded as doing "more good than harm." Few were ever recorded.


A more responsible attitude was taken following the Taupo fires of 1946. The Forest Service in Hokitika kept a Register of fires after the war and from that Register come some horrific fires. In 1950, 594 hectares of cutover forest and pakihi were burnt in what is now Mawhera Forest of Timberlands. The same year, 1198 hectares were burnt in SF42 (lanthe). In 1955, 299 hectares in Brunner Forest; in 1956, 403 hectares in SF15; in 1959, 622 hectares in SF20 (Kawhaka) between Ahaura and Kopara; in 1960, another fire in Mawhera Forest burnt 302 hectares; and in 1969 again in Mawhera Forest, 660 hectares burnt including 405 hectares of 2 to 5 year old P. radiata. Six years later, in 1975 as a result of Cyclone Alison, 885 hectares of plantation in SF43, Waimea, was burnt, including 857 hectares of 8 year old pine. It took 939 manhours to put out. In this period (1945 to 1998) there have been 26 fires in exotic plantations destroying 1413 hectares of exotic trees.


The effect on the environment has been catastrophic. Some pakihis have been repeatedly burnt destroying some very delicate ecological associations. In the period stated there have been 45 reported fires in pakihis burning 2162 hectares. Fires in the high country and sub alpine vegetation zone take decades to recover; some never recover. There have been some shocking fires in these areas, On the Croesus track (1977, 60ha), and on the slopes of Mt Newcombe (1957, 20 ha), the delicate sub alpine vegetation has still not recovered.


The period of recorded fires only covers the West Coast. Records of fires in the Buller are not available. (It used to be part of the Nelson Conservancy). But, it is estimated from talks with old timers and ex-Forest Service staff, that the number of fires over the same 53 year period would be similar to that on the West Coast, but that the area burnt would be less: an estimated 1500 fires with10,000 hectares burnt. In recent times, a major fire in the Millerton Area (about 1976) burnt an estimated 3000 hectares including some houses.


Since the war (to June 1998) there have been 1521 fires recorded (that's 30 a year) burning over 30,000 hectares. (Source NZFS and DOC). This excludes many of the fires attended by the fire brigades, and some in Buller. The total number would probably exceed 3000. In the past 5 years there have been 235 fires; an average of 47 a year. Nearly 1 in 10 (24) of which resulted in claims to the Rural Fire Fighting Fund. Various Director of Forests Annual Reports mentioned fires of some significance. In 1969 400 hectares of 8 year old pines were destroyed at Mawhera Forest; in 1974, 405 hectares of valuable young pines was lost, resulted indirectly from the cyclone off Westland in March.


2.   The high rainfall is misleading when assessing fire danger. Despite the high rainfall, the West Coast does not have significantly more raindays than places with high fire risk. When it rains it does not piss around. It rains. None of this foggy misty stuff that stuffs up the cricket in places like Auckland. When comparing rainfall with other places it is more accurate to compare the duration of raintime. Westport for example has 3 times the amount of rain than Auckland but exactly the same number of raindays. Milford Sound, which has 6 times as much rain as Auckland actually has less raindays!


A study done by the old Meteorological Service on actual periods of time of precipitation when humidity exceeded 95% (it would be raining or misty) showed that Auckland's humidity exceeded 95% for 23% of the time, compared to Hokitika (17%). Others included Christchurch 19% and Wellington 18%. Hokitika's actual precipitation periods were less than Auckland (which was top), Wellington or Christchurch. Hokitika's airport does not close through fog.


3.   While comparing climate why not also look at mean temperatures and sunshine hours. The West Coast dries out quickly. Fires can occur the day after a three or four inch deluge. This is because of the shingly and stony soil and the steep, well-drained topography. The stones also absorb heat, which helps dries out the vegetation. It has a comparatively high number of sunshine hours. For example, Westport has more sunshine hours than Christchurch. Haast has more than Auckland.


4.   The West Coast has been plundered in the past, and there lies many areas of secondary growth, which contains high‑risk volatile fuel such as gorse and bracken.


5.   Because of the wet climate, often falsely perceived, there is a real danger of complacency on the West Coast, and worse elsewhere, in regards to rural fire. The Director of Forests in his report to Government in 1953 wrote:


"The problem of fire prevention on the West Coast will have to be mastered if very large areas of land are not to become derelict. The old-time, experienced bushmen had a fixed idea that West Coast bush would not bum, and this half truth is still nourished where extensive areas of cut over forest adjoin rough grazing runs. In a community with a mining and sawmilling background, accustomed to thinking in terms of exploitation, the forester, trained to think in terms of centuries and the conservation and perpetual use of soils, spoke an alien language, and had a thankless task in enforcing fire precautions."


In a special section of the same report he added under separate heading:



Fire prevention is perhaps more vital to the West Coast than any other area of equal size in New Zealand. With its climate, and the low fertility of most of West Coast soil, forestry must eventually play the major role in land use on the coast. If the regeneration is destroyed, and then the top soil in later fires, all that will grow are the flash fuel of gorse, blackberry, and bracken. Repeated burning degrades the West Coast into a waterlogged waste land. However, more sympathy for the foresters aim is now apparent. The Board appointed by the Westland and Grey County Councils to co‑ordinate fire control on the coast is an instance. The West Coast newspapers also help by featuring fire news and in editorials stressing fire prevention”.


The following year, following 18 serious fires on the West Coast senior Forest Service people met in Hokitika to discuss ways of more adequately protecting the West Coast from fire. The Director of Forests reported to Government:


"This is not an easy task. There is still some carelessness or indifference about fires in cutover forests, and, side by side with this, the persistent idea that there is no fire menace on the more than usually wet West Coast. The use of steam logging equipment is still all too common, and on grazing land roughage is still fired to encourage feed. Much of the waste‑land country for which West Coast scenery is known is forest land which has been degraded by too much burning over."


And finally, what is at stake.


Well. The West Coast has an exotic resource of 35,000 hectares most of which is growing on the free draining terrace country. It has a value of over $1 billion.


It has the most spectacular and wonderful scenery in New Zealand of which the bush is centre stage. OK, it is indigenous rain forest, which does not burn easily. But repeated fires in the past have pushed the bushline further and further back by a succession of fires leaving ugly scars on the landscape and a forest edge which is scorched and ugly. But indigenous fires can also be hard to put out. The scenery and unique features of the coast brings the tourist. Tourism is the second largest income earner on the West Coast bringing in $130 million annually ($4000 for every man, woman and child (pop 35,000) every year on the economically impoverished West Coast.)


More significantly, the soil, the land and the ecology on the West Coast is very delicate. It takes a long time to recover from fire. The pakihis contain many rare plants, and pakihi fires in the past, deliberately lit to obtain access to the silver pine stands, or in a case last year lit by DOC antagonists who lit 4 candles in a pakahi to start a fire.


Westland is renowned for being different. Being innovative. And to always expect the unexpected to happen.

For example:


* the first regular fire patrols in NZ in 1923 occurred on tramways during the fire season.

* in 1934, the Director General's Report commented on how the innovative West Coaster had used a live 82 feet high rimu tree as a lookout which towered over the entire plantation.

* 1923: in Westland, the sawmillers spontaneously co‑operated with the Service in detailing workmen to patrol the logging tramways daily during the fire season. The total expenditure on fire protection for indigenous forest was at the rate of 6d per 100 acres. (5c per 40 hectares in 1996 money terms, this equates to $1.65 per 40 hectares. There are about two and a half million hectares of indigenous forest within the West Coast Rural Fire District and this amounts to $4.2 million a year by today's standards that would be spent on fire protection.)

* 1926: 60 men were employed in Westland between November to March on fire patrols. The total number of patrolmen throughout New Zealand was 137.


The declared areas by various organisations making up the West Coast Rural Fire District in 1997 are listed below.






DOC area within Council area, ha

Department of Conservation

Other Crown Land

Buller District Council

Grey District Council

Westland District Council

Timberlands West Coast
















*This excludes Timberlands (Crown Lease) and the Other Crown Land whose land is within District        Councils’ boundaries. Timberlands lands include 157,000 hectares of indigenous, and approximately 27,000 hectares, of exotic forest.