Māori arrived in New Zealand around 1250–1300 CE. They found a land that was heavily forested, apart from the semi-arid regions of Central Otago and the Mackenzie Country, in the South Island. It is likely that hunters deliberately set fire to the bush to flush out game birds such as moa, and to make hunting easier. The fires caused widespread deforestation in the South Island east of the main dividing range, and also in large parts of the eastern North Island. It is almost certain that at times the fires got out of control, and some of the burnoff would have been accidental.
The story of the ‘fire of Tamatea’ has been interpreted as an allegory of the burning of the South Island’s east coast. Tamatea was in the South Island and needed fire. A priest sent it to him from the volcanic mountains Ruapehu and Ngāuruhoe, in the North Island. The fire rolled along the ground until it reached Cook Strait, where it rose into the air. As the flames travelled across the South Island, some fell to the ground, shaping the landscape.
Growing fern root
Burning became a traditional practice for Māori. The staple vegetable was aruhe (fern root), and the fernlands were maintained by regular burning. This suppressed the regrowth of other plants, allowing the fern to regenerate. In some parts of the North Island the fern country needed to be burnt every three to five years.
At the time of European settlement, fernlands were found in parts of Northland, Waikato, the Volcanic Plateau and many east coast areas, especially the Wairarapa, with the most extensive in Hawke’s Bay. In the South Island, cultivated fern country was less extensive, because the root that grew there was seldom edible.
Torches for fire and light
Māori made torches (rama) for hunting at night. The fuel consisted of dry, shredded tōtara bark and dried grass saturated with bird fat. This was rolled up inside a casing made of flax and long pieces of tōtara bark. These torches would burn for three to four hours. It is likely that torches similar to this were used for setting fire to vegetation for hunting, and for agricultural purposes.
In the North Island and the northern South Island, Māori also cultivated gardens to grow kūmara. Burning was part of the agricultural cycle to prepare new ground, with the minerals in the ash from burned scrub and fern providing nutrients for the crop.