Story: Fires and fire services

Being trapped in a fire is the stuff of nightmares. When fires get out of control they can destroy property and take lives. New Zealand’s worst fire was in Ballantynes department store in 1947, when employees were trapped on the upper floors.

Story by Nancy Swarbrick
Main image: Painting of the Lyttelton fire of 1870, by J. Sanderson

Story summary

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Useful but dangerous

Before electric power fire was needed for cooking, heating, lighting (candles and lamps), and other household tasks. Steam engines and trains were powered by fire, and fire was used to clear land for farming.

However, fires sometimes got out of control. There were serious fires in rural areas, and in towns and cities. Because most buildings in New Zealand were made of wood, they burned easily.

Later, fires could be caused by electrical faults, car crashes and chemical explosions.

Historic fires

  • In 1879 a fire in buildings in Dunedin’s Octagon killed 12 people.
  • In 1901 five people died in a fire in Auckland’s Grand Hotel.
  • In 1942, 37 women died in a fire at Seacliff Mental Hospital, north of Dunedin. The patients couldn’t escape because they were locked in.
  • In 1947 a fire swept through Ballantynes department store in Christchurch, killing 41 people – the most to die in a New Zealand fire.

Early fire brigades

The first volunteer fire brigades were started in the 1850s, and from the 1860s there were some professional firefighters.

The first fire engines were pulled by horses. In 1903 the Wanganui Fire Brigade got the first motorised steam fire engine in Australasia, and most brigades had them by the 1920s. Piped water, telescopic ladders and automatic alarms are some of the changes that made fighting fires easier.

Fire Service

Local volunteer and professional fire brigades were combined to become the New Zealand Fire Service in 1976.

As well as putting out fires, the Fire Service encourages fire safety and prevention, and helps at crashes, chemical spills, rescues and other emergencies.


In 2008 there were 7,646 volunteer and 1,655 professional firefighters in New Zealand. They need to be physically fit and strong, and pass practical and theory tests before they are fully qualified.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Fires and fire services', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 May 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 11 March 2010