Story: Fires and fire services

Page 1. Causes of fires

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Fire is a good friend but a bad enemy. It can be useful, but, at worst, it threatens human life. In a few minutes fire can also destroy homes, possessions and dreams.

The risk of fire

In settler New Zealand, fire was an everyday necessity. Food was cooked over fires or coal stoves, which also provided warmth in winter. Fires heated water for bathing and laundry, and candles and oil lamps gave light. Steam engines were powered by fire. The worry that fires might get out of control was justified: most buildings were wooden, and many settlements were surrounded by bush that became tinder-dry in hot weather.

The spread of fire


In colonial New Zealand: ‘Fire spread by means of sparks from chimneys and funnels, from open fires by sparks and falling coals, from misplaced candles and overturned lamps and lanterns, from furnaces, forges and ovens, from bonfires (both festival and utilitarian), from unswept chimneys, from the play and meddling of children.’ 1


Town and country

Before there were fire brigades, uncontrolled urban fires could be devastating. A fire at Petone on 25 May 1840 destroyed a line of cottages known as Cornish Row. Three fires in July, October and November 1842 wiped out large parts of central Wellington.

Fires lit deliberately to clear land for agriculture could get out of control. Bushfires menaced smaller towns, for instance in South Canterbury in 1878, and during a long drought in Hawke’s Bay and Taranaki in 1885–86. An out-of-control bushfire razed the town of Raetihi in 1918. Such fires concerned both urban and rural dwellers.

Power, transport and fire

Fire risk increased as power sources diversified: gas could leak and explode if ignited, and electrical wiring could develop faults that caused fires. Transport accidents were another potential cause of blazes. The possibility of fiery crashes grew with the increase in motor-vehicle traffic from the 1920s, and the growth of the aviation industry after the Second World War.

Large buildings

Before standard codes for the design of public buildings, fires resulted in needless deaths. For example, hotel fires in Auckland in 1901 and Hamilton in 1922 trapped and killed guests and staff. The layout and construction of Ballantynes department store in Christchurch contributed to the high death toll in the 1947 fire.

Sick and elderly people in institutions are particularly vulnerable in fires. The worst occurred at Seacliff Mental Hospital in 1942, but there were also some fatal rest-home fires in the late 1960s and 1980s that drew attention to the need for alarms, sprinkler systems and emergency procedures.

Chemical fires and spills

From the 1970s the growing use of gas and chemicals for industrial purposes led to an increase in explosions, fire and chemical spills. One such emergency was a major fire in a cool store at Tamahere, near Hamilton, on 5 April 2008. Highly flammable propane gas, used as a refrigerant, leaked and was ignited by electricity. Firefighters investigating the cool store after a smoke detector sounded were caught in the explosion. One was killed and seven others were seriously injured.

Cleansing flames


Sometimes places where horrific events have taken place are deliberately burned by people who want to erase the tangible reminder. After a mentally ill gunman killed two boys and wounded four children and two adults at the Waikino School, near Paeroa, in 1923, grieving locals torched the school buildings. In 1994, at the request of relatives, the Fire Service burned down the Bain family’s Dunedin home in a controlled fire after five members of the family were murdered there.


P labs

In the early 2000s a major issue was the use of houses as P labs to make the illegal drug pure methamphetamine, or P. Very toxic and volatile chemicals are used to ‘cook’ the drug. They leave cancer-causing residue on surrounding surfaces, which need to be decontaminated before the house can be reoccupied. The chemicals can also explode. The Fire Service often has to deal with P-lab fires, and must decontaminate buildings and people who have come into contact with the chemicals.

Accidental and deliberate fires

Destructive fires are usually the result of accidents and carelessness, but around 40% of fires are caused by arson. Most arsonists are young men who are bored, curious or have emotional problems. Older arsonists are often motivated by revenge. Pathological arsonists – people who enjoy the sense of power they get from lighting fires – are more worrying as they can become serial offenders. Public buildings such as schools and churches are often targeted.

  1. Rollo Arnold, New Zealand’s burning: the settler’s world in the mid 1880s. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1994, p. 239. Back
How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Fires and fire services - Causes of fires', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 May 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 11 Mar 2010