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. Over an area of many square miles of Main Trunk country, this conflagration flared for an alarming two days, covering in its flaming stride Ohakune, Raetihi, Horopito, and Rangataua. Although they were then little more than small bush townships, they preserved their existence only by a very narrow margin. The main casualties of a terrifying experience were a family of three—father, mother, and child in a lonely house eight miles from Raetihi—who were burned to death. Public utilities such as railways, telegraph lines, and bridges fell easy victims to the march of the fire, and over 150 dwellings, plus nine active sawmills, were destroyed. A full accounting of the losses suffered was never made, but there was a sorry bill for livestock and pasturage in a district that was busily engaged in conserving winter fodder. The sawmilling industry, too, suffered a setback from which it took years to recover. Hundreds of miles away people saw the evidence of destruction. In Wellington, 200 miles distant, the afternoon skies gloomed over, smoke penetrated everywhere and schools closed.