Eastbourne 1908 

This account appeared in Eastbourne Fire Brigade 60th Anniversary, 1923-83, and reports a fire when the town was jokingly referred to as 'Eastburn'. It is probably typical of wildfire firefighting efforts before there was any formal organisation of rural fire.

In February 1908, one of Eastbourne’s biggest bush and scrub fires burnt in York bay and adjacent bays south to Gollan’s Valley. The fire started in York Bay and spread up as far as Gollan’s Valley before the threat to Day’s Bay was fully appreciated. A dramatic description of the firefighting appeared in the NZ Times of 25 February headlined ‘Days Bay bush outbreak – the danger probably past’:

 ‘The strenuous, almost heroic efforts of a small band of men have saved the beautiful bush at Days Bay from destruction. Since Thursday there has been a steady struggle in progress on the ridge above Days Bay….nearly a week ago it started in the neighbourhood of York Bay. The careless picnicker is absolved from blame, the belief being that the fire spread from ‘burns’ at the back of Wainui.

Mr C.E. Zohrab, manager of the WeIIington Steam Ferry Co., which owns the bush, took half a dozen of his employees to the scene, and commenced the one‑sided contest. A fire‑line was cut through the dense undergrowth. This had to extend for a mile and a half in semicircular fashion on the hilltops, to partially encompass the burning area. The plan of campaign was to beat out the fire when it worked up to this open space, but time after time the line was broken by burning trees failing across it, carrying live embers into the heart of the undergrowth, which was like tinder. Peat and leaves, though burning smokily without much flame, carried the fire even more effectively than failing trees, for the watchers on the fire‑line, who had apparently succeeded in keeping the fire on the right side, often found to their despair that it had worked beneath leaves and logs, and had reappeared a dozen feet beyond the line. The handful of men under Mr Zohrab's direction worked ceaselessly from Tuesday night until Sunday, endeavouring to keep back the fire, but it advanced surely, if slowly, and reinforcements had to be hurriedly obtained from town on Sunday.

Following up the batch of 23 wharf labourers who went to Days Bay yesterday to help the Ferry Company's men, a 'Times' reporter climbed the bare spur which runs almost to the sea at Days Bay wharf. To the left was a deep ravine, branching in several directions into the main ridge, and into one of these gullies the fire was penetrating having crossed the ridge and commenced to descend. Though it has been a long drought, the forest of birch was still green, and the fern valley to the right had lost little of its charm. Everywhere was food for fire‑dried branches, leaves more inflammable than paper, and moss which had been scored of its life.

Fagged out

Where the track ended there was a collection of bottle and empty meat tins, indicating that a camp had recently existed. Near it, stretched full length on the ground, was a man who might just have emerged from a stokehold . . . "Fagged out; been working night and day since Thursday, he said in reply to a query as to whether he represented a 'casualty'. As one of the veterans he had a mild contempt for the amateur who had come straight from the city that morning ... but, stimulated by the pay of a sovereign a day of twelve hours, they kept up a ceaseless fight with the fire, beating out flames where they showed up, and clearing the fire‑line, first with the axe, and then sweeping it free from dead leaves.

A quiet southerly breeze was allowing the beating‑out process to go on successfully, and the tired men along the line were jubilant. Many of them had been able to get a sleep for half an hour at a time. They did not trouble about blankets, but they just lay on the leaves, keeping half an eye open for the insidious foe ... It was exciting however, on Saturday night, when a number of totaras near the top of the ridge began to blaze and topple over with a thunderous roar.

Four of the Ferry Company's men had a sensational experience next day. They were beating out the fire, and had ventured into the smoky undergrowth in their anxiety to do the work quickly. They did not notice how the fire had worked to leeward, and they found themselves surrounded. “I felt like lying down and letting things go,” said one of them, but he chose a more spirited course of action in the end, and with his companions burst through a belt of smouldering undergrowth into safety. One of these men had been on duty a week but he gave out yesterday afternoon and turned cook. Mr Zohrab has himself been working tremendously, keeping a general eye to the fire‑fighting, and making sure that food supplies were regularly provided.

Yesterday afternoon the fire was well in hand from Days Bay to York Bay, but at the later point twenty men had to get to work energetically as there was still a danger of the fire assuming serious proportions. At no point along the fire‑line of over two miles was the bush on the Wellington side absolutely safe and it had to be frequently traversed to deal with small outbreaks ...

It is quite impossible to tell what damage has been done by fire in the ranges behind Days Bay, but an area of at least two hundred acres between Wainui, Gollan's Valley, and the ridge above the harbour has been fire‑swept. Where totaras caught alight they burnt away and fell. Many magnificent ratas were seen to burn on Saturday. Some of the trees destroyed are estimated to have had a milling value of between £40 and £50. However, the bulk of the bush is mountain birch, and the forest is not apparently old, so that it may be found when rain has completely quenched the fire . . . that the undergrowth has been effectively cleared and most of the timber left practically undamaged.'

The Evening Post was also reporting the fire on 24 February. It this edition, it was also reporting Government measures to assist settlers with the consequences of extensive bushfires throughout the country.