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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the days before fire brigades, everyone was a firefighter. In 1856 a local-government regulation required all Wellington citizens to keep two buckets of water ready so they could help in case of fire.
A few early fire brigades were sponsored by insurance companies and fought fires only at insured buildings, which were specially marked. The first volunteer fire brigade, which attended all fire callouts, was formed in Auckland in 1854. Others followed in Christchurch in 1860, Dunedin in 1861 and Wellington by 1865. The United Fire Brigades of New Zealand, founded in 1878, promoted links between brigades.
The Municipal Corporation Act 1867 empowered borough councils to set up fire brigades and appoint fire inspectors. After this, paid firefighters were employed in some cities such as Christchurch. However, lack of funds meant volunteers remained the backbone of the firefighting force.
Some serious fires prompted the formation of brigades, or led to improvement in those in existence.
One obstacle for early firefighters was lack of piped water. Streams, horse troughs, and special water tanks were used, but until piped water of sufficient pressure became available, brigades often had to stand by and watch buildings burn.
At first, buckets were used; then hose reels and manual pumps which were dragged by men or horses to the scene of the fire. Steam-driven pumps were much more efficient. The Dunedin brigade acquired the first of these in 1865, and in 1878 they imported the first 49-foot (15-metre) telescopic ladder. About this time ‘jumping sheets’ were first used to catch people leaping from burning buildings. In the 1880s fire extinguishers were introduced. Some commercial buildings in Dunedin and Auckland had sprinkler systems by the late 1800s.
From the 1840s to the 1870s many towns had a centrally located fire bell that was rung by anyone who spotted flames. Sometimes church bells were used. Watchmen patrolled towns at night or spotted smoke from lookout towers. In 1882 Auckland got 12 electric street alarms, and other cities followed.
The first Parliament building in Wellington, built of wood, was destroyed in a spectacular fire in 1907. Firemen and bystanders raced to save its books, papers, furniture and artworks. The adjacent brick General Assembly Library was also threatened by the flames, but the building and its contents were saved by its fire walls and metal fire door. Parliament sat in Government House, on the site where the Beehive now stands, until a replacement Parliament house – wisely built of stone – came into use in 1918.
The Fire Brigades Act 1906 set up fire boards to administer fire districts of 2,000 or more people. An inspector of fire brigades was appointed, and central government, local authorities and insurance companies were levied to cover costs. Fire brigades continued to be run locally.
Motorised fire engines helped to get firefighters and equipment to fires quickly. The Wanganui Fire Brigade got the first ‘self-propelled’ steam fire engine in Australasia in 1903. Auckland and Wellington followed in 1906, and by the 1920s most brigades were motorised. The petrol-powered water pump, carried or towed by motor fire engines, was another advance.
A new fire-alarm system was invented by a Dunedin fire fighter in 1913. The alarm was activated by smashing the glass on a box mounted on a lamp post. This sent a signal to a switchboard operator, who despatched a fire engine to where the alarm was raised. The system was still used in some towns in the 1970s. With improved alarm technology in the 1930s, some city fire brigades began monitoring private fire alarms in commercial buildings, and set up inspection departments to assess major buildings for fire risk and recommend improvements.
Two serious fires in the 1940s raised questions about the state of New Zealand’s fire service and fire protection measures.
On the night of 8 December 1942 fire broke out in a locked ward at Seacliff Mental Hospital, north of Dunedin. The huge, isolated hospital was built mainly of stone, but ward 5, which housed ‘difficult’ women patients, was a two-storey wooden addition.
The ward was always locked at night, and nearly all windows were shuttered and locked. Because of wartime staff shortages, the ward was visited only once an hour. By the time the fire was discovered it had taken hold. The hospital’s small fire brigade attempted to fight the blaze and rescue patients, but there was little they could do. Only two of the ward’s patients escaped – the remaining 37 died horribly in the inferno.
An inquiry condemned the practice of leaving patients locked up without adequate supervision, and found that the building was a fire risk. It was made of very flammable materials, and the design allowed flames to spread rapidly. Its ancient alarm system, which had to be unlocked by a nurse before being activated, was virtually useless. It was recommended that future institutional buildings be made of fire-resistant materials, with emergency exits, automatic monitored fire alarms and sprinkler systems. It was many years, however, before these measures were introduced in all institutions.
Even more shocking to New Zealanders was the massive fire that engulfed Ballantynes department store in Christchurch on 18 November 1947. Just after 3.30 p.m. smoke was discovered in the basement of the furniture department of the sprawling store, which consisted of seven linked buildings. Soon most of the 300 store employees and the customers had got out of the store.
However, there was a delay before the store’s office workers, dressmakers and milliners (hat makers) were told to leave the upper floors of the store. The store had no evacuation plan and there had never been a fire drill. Some of the women were ordered by their supervisors to stay where they were. A few people got down fire escapes, but a number were trapped.
Ballantynes’ dressmakers escaped by the stairs just as the upper parts of the store began to collapse. Others were not so lucky. Office workers in the credit department stayed to shut up the office equipment, but then found they could not use the fire escape because of the smoke and heat. Three women jumped out of windows: two were rescued from the verandah, but one died of her injuries. Those who stayed perished in the fire. The milliners were slow to head for the fire escape and only two made it – seven died after collapsing from smoke inhalation.
It was also a while before the fire brigade was called, and by the time fire engines arrived the blaze was burning fiercely. The brigade’s two most senior officers were on leave, and the officer in charge was inexperienced. All the firefighters could do was stop the fire from spreading. The building was reduced to a shell, and 41 people were killed in New Zealand’s most deadly fire.
A royal commission of inquiry decided that although the fire was an accident, many lives could have been saved if action had been taken earlier. It noted that there were not enough properly trained and equipped firefighters, and their efforts were not well coordinated. It also found that the construction of the store was unsafe, and there were no emergency procedures, alarms or means of contacting the fire brigade automatically.
Major fires led to growing support for nationally organised fire services in the late 1940s.
A massive scrub and forest fire in the hot summer of 1946 threatened the towns of Taupō and Ātiamuri, and at its height blocked the Taupō–Rotorua road. It prompted the Forest and Rural Fires Act 1947, which laid the basis for a modern rural firefighting system.
The commission of inquiry into the Ballantyne’s department-store fire had suggested that urban fire brigade administration and training was inadequate, and proposed a national fire service. This was rejected by those who feared loss of local control and increased costs. Instead the Fire Services Act 1949 set up the Fire Service Council. It had the job of coordinating local body and volunteer fire services, directing training, and distributing equipment.
While no-one died, the loss of government archives in a 1952 fire was a tragedy for New Zealand historians. Records of the Public Works, Lands and Survey, Marine, Labour and Employment departments were destroyed or damaged when the Hope Gibbons building in central Wellington went up in flames. Anger at the loss led to the establishment of the National Archives in 1957.
The 1950s and 1960s saw some improvements in fire services. Many New Zealanders had been trained in firefighting as part of their wartime service, and more volunteer brigades were founded in small towns. They were given army surplus vehicles and equipment. City brigades upgraded their buildings and equipment, investing in two-way radios and replacing volunteers with paid staff.
In 1958 the first national training school was set up, and the emergency 111 telephone number was introduced. However, there was little cooperation between services around the country, they were not standardised, and their funding depended on factors such as the population and wealth of the district.
On the morning of 26 July 1969 fire broke out at Sprott House, a home for the elderly in Karori, Wellington. Although the matron and the cook managed to save 13 of the residents, seven women died. At that stage, rest homes were not required to have sprinklers or an automatic alarm. The Fire Safety Evacuation of Buildings Regulations 1970 made sprinklers, automatic alarms and evacuation schemes compulsory for institutions housing more than 20 people. More fatal fires soon showed that these provisions needed to be extended to smaller rest homes.
Residents of the suburb of Parnell, Auckland, woke on 27 February 1973 with stinging eyes and sore throats, and emergency services were soon alerted. The source of the problem was a number of leaking steel drums containing Merphon organophosphate cotton defoliant, which had been dumped on a section in Parnell after being offloaded from a freighter bound from Mexico to Australia. Over the next four days 6,000 people were evacuated from their homes, and 643 were treated in hospital, including 41 firefighters who either inhaled fumes or were burned by the caustic soda used to neutralise the defoliant.
The emergency forced a review of procedures for dealing with the growing problem of chemical fires and spills. It also underlined the need for coordination between separate brigades.
In 1976 the newly appointed Fire Service Commission set up a centralised New Zealand Fire Service, which took over local fire boards and brigades. Organised into a hierarchy of regions, areas and districts, it was better able to deal with major emergencies, and resources could be used more effectively.
Advances during the later 1970s and 1980s included the upgrading of fire stations, vehicles and equipment, and the introduction of computerised despatch systems.
There were also new demands on firefighters, including increased attendance at road accidents, more arson callouts and rest home fires. There was a major chemical fumes emergency at the ICI Riverview chemical warehouse in Auckland in 1984, in which 31 firefighters suffered ill-effects.
Restructuring in the 1990s reduced the number of fire regions and areas with the aim of making the service more efficient.
In 2009 the Fire Service was organised into eight regions with 346 urban fire districts. These were served by 440 stations, of which more than three-quarters were voluntary fire brigades. In 2008 there were 1,655 career fire fighters, and 7,646 volunteers. The busiest stations were those in the cities of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.
Each fire region has a manager, and the service is headed by a chief executive who is also national commander of operations. The Fire Service is governed by the New Zealand Fire Service Commission, a Crown entity whose five members are appointed by and report to the minister of internal affairs.
The Fire Service is funded by a levy, which is included in all insurance contracts covering property (houses, contents and vehicles) against loss by fire.
Under the Fire Service Act 1975, the Fire Service is responsible for fighting fires and promoting fire safety and prevention. It also responds to other emergencies. In 2007, 73,333 incidents were attended by the Fire Service, but only 24,279 were fires. The remainder were events such as chemical spills and road accidents. Firefighters can be called on for a wide range of tasks, from rescuing cats caught up tall trees, to securing roofs blown loose in storms.
In addition to New Zealand Fire Service brigades, there are special firefighting units. All major airports have crash fire services. There are also several hundred industrial fire brigades at freezing works, timber and steel mills, oil refineries and large factories where fire is a risk.
A large rural population, poverty and substandard housing contributed to a spate of fatal house fires in Northland in 2002. This prompted a fire prevention programme called Te Kotahitanga. Local people were trained as ‘fire safety advisors’ and visited homes, installing smoke alarms, providing safety advice and drawing up fire escape plans.
Under the Forest and Rural Fires Act 1977, the New Zealand Fire Service Commission also acts as the National Rural Fire Authority. However, the rural firefighting system is different from the urban system. Some 90 rural fire authorities are responsible for fighting and preventing vegetation fires on rural and forest land. They include the Department of Conservation for conservation land, the New Zealand Defence Force for defence land, rural fire district committees for specially gazetted areas, and local territorial authorities for all other rural land.
Sometimes New Zealand rural firefighters go to help their overseas counterparts, for example during bushfires in Australia in 2009 and 2019.
In 2008 there were around 3,000 volunteer rural fire fighters, and costs were covered by affected landowners and the Rural Fire Fighting Fund.
In 2004 a review of fire legislation began. It aimed to recognise the changing role of the Fire Service in helping with civil defence and other emergency rescue work, and to better align the urban and rural fire systems. By 2008 there had been public consultation on proposed law changes.
In 2006 the Fire Safety and Evacuation of Buildings Regulations replaced earlier regulations. From then, the Fire Service helped review fire-safety designs before they were given building consents.
In the early 2000s the Fire Service expanded its campaigns to raise public awareness of fire dangers. In 2001 the Firewise education programme was launched to teach year one and two primary school students and year seven and eight intermediate students about fire safety. Television advertisements targeted a broader audience. A 2003 commercial about the speed at which fire spreads won a Gold Award at the Cannes International Advertising Awards.
In the 19th century most members of volunteer fire brigades were skilled tradesmen and small businessmen who wanted to make contacts and get ahead. They had enough money to take time off work for firefighting, pay the brigade membership subscription, buy a uniform, and pay fines if they did not attend a fire.
In the early 2000s volunteers came from all walks of life, but social benefits and a desire to support the local community were still incentives. In 2008 there were 7,646 New Zealanders serving in volunteer fire brigades.
Early career firefighters often had a seafaring background. Superintendent Robertson of the Dunedin brigade became New Zealand’s first paid firefighter in 1861, and there were others at a permanently-manned station at Christchurch from 1868. Numbers increased after the Second World War. There were 1,655 career firefighters in 2008.
The 1970s debate about women joining the Fire Service exposed some beliefs that have since been disproved. Opponents thought that women were physically and emotionally incapable of dealing with the demands of the job, and would disrupt the male camaraderie at fire stations. History has proved them wrong.
Women often work in administrative jobs at fire stations, and some were firefighters in volunteer brigades in the 1960s, but they had a battle to be accepted as career firefighters. When Aucklander Anne Barry applied to become a firefighter in 1979, she was turned down on the grounds of her sex. Barry took the case to the Human Rights Commission, which ruled in her favour in 1981. In 2008 there were 53 women career firefighters and 880 volunteers.
In the 1930s larger fire stations built accommodation for firefighters and their wives. Married men were paid more than single men, and were promoted to officer ranks. In the 2000s firefighters must pass exams to progress through various ranks from qualified firefighter up to chief fire officer.
The working day was once highly regimented: firemen could not leave the station without permission, and spent most of their time doing menial cleaning and maintenance tasks. Discipline is still important in firefighting, but now there is more emphasis on teamwork, and the range of tasks is wider and more specialised. An average day may include visits to local businesses to discuss safety issues, study, equipment checks and fire callouts.
Volunteer firefighters in small towns may attend only a few fires each year. However, in cities, career firefighters have traditionally worked long hours. In 2008 they usually worked four days on, four days off, in two 10-hour day shifts followed by two 14-hour night shifts.
Regional firefighters’ unions were formed just before the First World War to achieve better pay and working conditions. In 1988 they merged to form the New Zealand Professional Firefighters’ Union.
In 1974 professional firefighters sought pay parity with police officers. The Christchurch brigade went on strike in 1975, forcing the government to bring in the armed forces to provide fire protection. In the 1990s the Professional Firefighters’ Union took legal action to challenge restructuring plans to reduce firefighter numbers and alter working conditions. The long-running dispute was not resolved until 2001.
The first Fire Service training school was opened at Island Bay, Wellington, in 1958. Another was opened in Auckland in 1967. In 2006 they were superseded when the National Training Centre opened at Rotorua.
The New Zealand firefighters calendar, featuring bare-chested firemen posing with firefighting equipment, has a cult following. It began in 1990 as a way of raising money for New Zealand participation in the annual World Firefighter Games. A percentage of funds goes towards the Child Cancer Foundation. In 2009 a calendar of female firefighters was produced to raise funds for the Breast Cancer Foundation.
Volunteer firefighters must be physically fit, and pass a medical test and security clearance before being accepted. They then take a seven-day course covering use of breathing apparatus, first aid, and realistic fire training. This is followed by weekly brigade training nights.
The requirements for career firefighters are tougher. Applicants must first pass an exam that tests literacy, maths and problem-solving abilities, and a physical test of fitness, strength, agility and endurance. They must then complete a four-hour practical assessment course to gauge their aptitude for firefighting tasks. Following this there is a formal interview, a medical check, and reference and security checks. Only those candidates who pass each stage are accepted for training. Recruits attend a 12-week course covering all aspects of firefighting and also education and prevention work.
Arnold, Rollo. New Zealand’s burning: the settler’s world in the mid 1880s. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1994.
Bacon, Ron. Fire Service. Auckland: Waiatarua Publishing, 2002.
Boon, Kevin. Ballantyne’s fire. Petone: Nelson Price Milburn, 1990.
McLean, Gavin. Fires and firefighting. Wellington: Grantham House, 1992.