FIRE 1878
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BushTown Waimate Incorporated

Waimate Bushfire 1878

Fire began to affect the landscape once the first European settlers arrived. Nowhere was this more so than on the East Coast of the South Island, where the dry vegetation was highly flammable.

There one spark was enough to set a fire racing along a front several kilometers long, especially when one of Canterbury's notorious spring nor-westers was howling along behind it. The first warning of what a careless settlers fire might do came as early as 1853 when 40 kilometers of Banks Peninsula forest went up in smoke in a fire that raged for three weeks.

The spring of 1859 was particularly dry throughout the eastern districts. In October a fire swept through the Arowhenua Bush in South Canterbury destroying, among other things, £2,000 worth of sawn timber. Fires broke out everywhere, many caused by sparks from bushworkers' billies. One such accidental burn completed the devastation of the Arowhenua Bush in January 1863, taking with it sawn timber, fencing and houses. Then, as on several occasions in the future, settlers were lucky to escape with their lives.

South Canterbury remained a springtime fire risk for as long as the mill workers attacked the forests. The bush area around Waimate had been home to a small but thriving sawmilling industry from the early 1860's. Where there are now paddocks over 9000 hectares of black and white pines, totara, ngaio, broadleaf and other trees once stood. From the early 1860's onwards, though, more and more trees went to feed the demand for timber from the fast growing seaports of Timaru and Oamaru. The destruction gathered pace after 1865 when James Bruce installed the first steam sawmill at what is now known as Garland's Bridge.

By 1877 five sawmills were operating at Waimate.

For every tree sacrificed for productive use, several were squandered. Fire claimed many. The bush suffered its first major fire on 18th November 1865 when sparks from a billy ignited a patch of dry fern. The sawmillers escaped with their lives, but precious little else. It was a grim warning of what lay in store.

As early as September 1863 the Canterbury Provincial Government had passed a Bush Fire Ordinance, designed to reduce the fire danger, but this legislation had never become law. Fires continued, most the result of pure carelessness, travellers forgetting to extinguish their fires, shepherds burning grass land too near the bush, or foresters billies setting scrub alight.

The next few years brought a distressing number of big fires. In November 1876 one major blaze burned out a large area of bush,forcing many to take to their heels. The most disastrous, however, was the conflagration of 1878, which swept away most of the remaining bush and came close to taking the town of Waimate with it.

The 'big burn' began innocuously enough on 12th November with grass fires on Hunters Hills set by musterers. One was still burning three days later when a spring nor'-wester gale put in an untimely appearance. This was no ordinary wind. In Timaru, where a falling chimney claimed the lives of a mother and child, the Timaru Herald declared that 'without in any way exaggerating, we may say that South Canterbury was ... visited by the heaviest north-west gale which has visited the district since its settlement'.

At St Andrews the railway station was blown off its piles. Timaru citizens sheltered indoors, the clouds of dust whipped up by the shrieking gale making it foolish to venture outside. From Christchurch in the north to Port Chalmers in the south, haystacks disintegrated, fences collapsed and roofs took to the air.

It was at Waimate Bush, though, where the gale struck hardest. While townsfolk sheltered indoors worrying about their roofs, those grass fires, fanned to intensity by the wind, started gathering momentum; sparks lofted into the air set fire to already smouldering piles of woodchips and sawdust. Flaming bark chips, whirled up by the heat of the fires and blown far afield by the nor'-wester, rained their incendiaries over the surrounding farmland. At 10.00 am on the 15th, in what seemed just a moment, the fire swept down the slope, engulfed Barrett's sawmills and began to fan out on a broad front. Six cottages near Parker's Bush disappeared beneath its charging front, their occupants fleeing before the advancing wall of flame. At 4pm the Herald's Waimate correspondent telegraphed that:

Even now I see traps coming down with families and what furniture they have been able to save. From good authority I hear that if the wind does not abate or change, the whole of the bush must go. Theobald's has already gone. [Alpheus] Hayes' was burning all around when the last news came, and no one could get near to save machinery or anything. Martin's was on fire; the Government reserves will go, and so also will O'Brien's. In fact, if the present wind continues, I believe the whole of the bush in Waimate will be completely cleared out.”

A last minute transmission that evening revealed that the wealthy pastoralist 'Mr Studholme has come in, as black as a sweep'. Two men had broken legs while firefighting and others were coming into town nursing burns. Late that night several families were unaccounted for and the rough roads leading into the town were crowded with people who had been burned out of house and home.

Some had carts full of their hastily gathered possessions, others carried bundles, while the unluckiest of all had just the soot-coated clothes in which they stood.

The most seriously injured was Michael Studholme's overseer, Potts who, believing his employer trapped by the flames, went back into the burning bush to offer assistance. Studholme, although momentarily cut off, used his knowledge of that part of the bush to escape, losing only his eyebrows and a few patches of skin. Potts and his companion, a man named Vining, were not so lucky. The fire trapped them and they suffered moderate to serious burns while lifting their trap over a burning white pine that had fallen, blocking the track.

The fire was now out of control and there was nothing that the country dwellers could do to stem its onrush. At noon on the 16th it devastated Hayes three steam mills. The machinery could not be moved in time to save it and the workers were sent scurrying away, abandoning eight nearby houses. The fire then advanced to Rickman's house. About half a dozen men decided to save it and remained inside, even after the flames had devoured the outhouses and had begun to lick the main building itself. There they stayed for three hours, throwing buckets of water over the walls, roof and each other. Coughing, choking, half blinded by the smoke and fatigued by the heat, several fainted more than once.

At length the fire consumed all that it could and burned itself out. By that stage, the men were so exhausted that they could barely lift another bucket. They had, however, achieved the impossible. When the smoke cleared Rickman's house could be seen singed but standing; the 12 neighbouring cottages had been reduced to ashes.

By now the fire was swinging towards Waimate itself, where apprehensive citizens prepared to abandon their township if necessary. They had little in which to place much confidence. The Waimate Volunteer Fire Brigade had been formed just over a year earlier but, although its members did not lack determination, they certainly lacked equipment; hooks, axes and buckets were the best that they could use against the flames.

For a while things looked very grim indeed. The gale continued to roar across the plain, pushing the fires towards the township. But just when people were about to leave, a last minute wind shift sent the blaze veering away from Waimate and into what was known as Manchester's Township. Waimate's gain was Manchester's loss. Hunt & Jeffrey's sawmills and 16 bush dwellings fell before the flames burned themselves out. There the firefighters earned praise from one householder who remarked that his furniture had been removed without a scratch, even though the house from which it was taken was well alight at the time.

When the fires finally burned themselves out on 23rd November, after an eight-day rampage, they left part of Waimate township and much of the countryside around it a desolate, blackened ruin. The timber industry had been dealt a fatal blow and although restarted by Hayes in a very minor way the following year, would expire during the 1890s. The damage was estimated at £40,000; another £500,000 worth of standing timber had been lost and 37 families had been left homeless. Many men, now jobless, left the district. Others had to rely on donations from relief committees set up at Dunedin, Oamaru, Waimate, Timaru and Christchurch.

Although some aggrieved settlers blamed the Studholmes, whose musterers were alleged to have started the first grass fire, the public inquiry held at Waimate in late November failed to establish the cause of the disaster. A protracted lawsuit against the Studholmes also failed to establish their guilt, although the process of litigation cost all concerned dearly.

The last word was left to the Timaru Herald. In an editorial surprisingly in keeping with modern conservationist sentiments, it declared that:

The year 1878 will long be remembered in this part of the world, on account of the destruction of the Waimate bush ... When the immense value of the property contained in it certainly seems wonderful that no measures were taken to protect it from a danger which was at all times imminent. Colonists are, however, proverbially short-sighted and careless with respect to those beautiful and wealth bearing native forests which can never be replaced and the proprieters of the Waimate bush seem to have been no exception to the rule. If private owners will not go to the necessary expenses to preserve their property from fire or natural decay, we think the authorities should step in and do so.

The fire put many men out of work and destroyed what was left of one of New Zealand's finest totara forests. But out of the ashes of the forest, which had been one of the main reasons for the existence of the town, there came the will to continue and in the following year, 1879 Waimate became a borough.

By "Te Wahine," Waituna W.I.
"Tell you the story of the bush fire, children? But I have told it to you so many times before, why worry poor grandma to tell it again?
It is ever fascinating, you say. Well, well, settle down around me, and once again I will recall those dreadful days and nights of long ago." "Your grandpa and I had recently been married, and we lived in a bush cottage on the east bank of the Waimate Creek, just where it flowed alongside the bullock track leading to Bruce's saw-mill.
This was one of the five steam sawmills then at work in the 3,000 acres of native forest that once stretched from the foothills to the site of the present town."
"Ours was a beautifully situated little house amid the tree ferns, and within the Sound of the murmuring stream. We had everything, had Jim and I, to make us happy,love and companionship, and employment and plenty. Our cottage was well stocked with the necessaries of the time,much less, of course, than you young folk think indispensable today."
"The situation was perfect in natural beauty. Rising above the tallest trees were the Hunters Hills in the immediate west, with Mount Studholme towering over 3,000 feet above us to the north."
"From the little hill behind the mill, one could view the Pacific, eight miles to the east, and 200 feet below. In the afternoons I loved to sit beside the creek, listening to the bellbirds and countless others making music, as they perched on the branches of the trees, beneath whose shade the ground was carpeted with ferns. The sun shone through the leafage, dappling with flickering, liquid gold the little bower in which I sat, the while I idly picked and ate the fuchsia berries from the tree against which I leant."
"Yes, children, that was a lovely period of my life, but it was soon to be tragically changed. The year was 1878 I remember it so well and the date was November 15th, when in the early morning a terribly fierce gale sprang up from the north-west. Soon it blew with a force so great that it was dangerous to be outside the house." "Smoke that was ever rising from the burning sawdust heaps at the mills, thickened up and darkened the morning. Then, high above the tree tops, I saw flames break forth, the bush was on fire. The wind was blowing in our direction, and my heart throbbed with terror. I ran to the house of my nearest neighbour, and found her in an agony of fear as she gathered her little children to her, longing for the reassuring voice of her husband. But we were to see no husbands for many hours."
"The call had gone forth for all workers to concentrate on the burning area, in an endeavour to stay the progress of the flames, but it was a hopeless task from the beginning. in face of that howling gale." "Michael Studholme, the first settler, hastened to the scene, but, while driving along the track, his buggy was blown over. Nothing daunted, he continued his journey." "The sawmill nearest the burning area was soon surrounded by the flames and destroyed. The homes of the workers went up in smoke, and became little heaps of ashes."
"As evening fell, we noticed that the wind had veered a little, and was carrying the fire northward from us. Late at night, we retired with a feeling of safety, and offered prayers of thankfulness for our escape.
"But, oh, children, before morning your grandpa and I were compelled to flee in our night clothes before the fire, so suddenly was the burning upon us. Down into the township a mile away we fled with our neighbours, and we were most kindly treated and housed by the townsfolk.
"Day after day, that fearful fire raged. Seventy houses were destroyed and five steam sawmills went up in flames when that beautiful and valuable bush was ravaged by fire. How the poor birds and native bats fluttered and fell before the cruel flames, and how many of them followed behind us as we fled to the township.
On the housetops they sat, distressed and desolate, while overhead the smoke blackened the sky, and on the fierce wind sheets of roofing iron were borne miles away towards the sea."
"For eight days the destruction went on, and many deeds of heroism were done. Brave men went back into reach of the burning area to seek for those who might still be in danger, and not one life was lost."
"But, my children, what a scene of desolation, when at last the wind dropped, the fires dwindled and went out. Nothing was left but smouldering logs and blackened stumps, where the forest giants had once lifted their green heads."
"Far away to the foothills there was still bush left standing which had been outside the driving flames, but there was now little occupation for the many men who had once found employment in sawmilling. Many people drifted away to other places, but your grandpa found work at his trade, and we stayed on here to witness the building up of a community on the ashes of destruction."
"Times were hard at first, and it was twenty-five years before Waimate regained that 1,400 of population possessed at the outbreak of the great bush fire. But during the long years we prospered and grew to love Waimate, because it was Home indeed.
In the words of the song, Waimate Home:
" Where the early settlers sleep,
And the hills their long watch keep,
There wherever I may roam,
Our Waimate, there is Home."

BushTown Waimate Incorporated
PO Box 43,
South Canterbury,
New Zealand