Raetihi 1918

The Raetihi Conflagration

Bush and forest fires on the grand scale have not been uncommon in New Zealand, but few of them have achieved the proportions of major catastrophe. Of those that have, one of the most notable was the Raetihi fire of 19 and 20 March 1918. 

In some respects, this was a rerun of the fires of 1885/86. In 1918, the Waimarino area was still a frontier, with small farmers clearing the bush to make pasture. It was a landscape overloaded with fuel, with much dead slash lying on the ground ready for the normal controlled burns. However, this summer had been partcularly hot, and there had been a prolonged drought - Raetihi had not seen rain for 5 weeks. And in mid-March, a ferocious wind swept the country causing widespread damage, initially in the South Island, and then the North.

Raetihi was a small town of 500. Late on the afternoon of the 18th March, settlers saw smoke rising from the bush to the north near Horopito. This was common in summer and as there was no wind, people were unconcerned. However, towards evening the wind rose, and then became so strong that people in nearby Ohakune complained that it was almost impossible to stand up. The gale turned the burnoffs into a conflagation. The smoke enveloped the towns and cities to the south, turning day into night, and contact with Raetihi was lost.

A few farmers managed to save their houses by forming bucket brigades but, for the most part, the country dwellers had to flee, and seek shelter as best they could. Some had miraculous escapes. The Akerson family were not so lucky; along with an assistant, the family of three fled their Mangaeturoa home, 8 miles from Raetahi, at 4am on the 19th, but were overtaken. The assistant climbed a tree and survived. At about midnight on the 19th, the wind changed direction, endangering Raetihi for the first time. The Raetihi Fire Brigade had a manual engine, bought because of concerns about threatening fires in 1908, but, because of a lack of water, it could do nothing. There was no reticulated water supply in town. Multiple buildings started burning, and another change in wind direction exacerbated the devastation. Some residents formed up bucket brigades, but most sought refuge such as 300 in the river under a bridge. A special train was run from Ohakune to pick up refugees. Not that the wooden railway bridges were immune; at least one viaduct caught fire, and had to be extinguished. On the morning of the 21st, rain starting falling, and the danger passed. 

A full accounting of the losses suffered was never made, but farming was badly hit in a district that was busily engaged in conserving winter fodder. Tens of thousands of farm animals were killed, and thousands of hectares of farmland burnt. The sawmilling industry, too, suffered a setback from which it took years to recover. Nine active sawmills were destroyed, making over 300 out of work. Horopito was totally destroyed. More than 120 houses had been lost, 58 of them in Raetihi, and 60 commercial premises destroyed. Using the names of places that burnt in those two days, the total area was about 150,000 ha. A relief fund was set up, which was only wound up 20 years later. 

At the same time as the Raetihi fire, large areas behind Wanganui were also burning.

1. G McLean, New Zealand Tragedies, Fires and Firefighting, Grantham House, 1992