Recently we saw the 100 year anniversary of the Raetihi Fire. It started with a customary scrub burn-off which gale-force winds fanned into a devastating inferno that transformed the landscape, and memories, of the local people.
Doris Wallace remembered the events of 19 March 1918. She woke to a strange stillness and a dark sky and thought she could smell smoke. She recalled that the wind was so strong she was afraid to let go of her son’s hand in case he was whipped away from her. Her husband Bert returned from gathering rams and told her “Raetihi was burning”. Around 10.00pm the night before, a red glow had been seen on the horizon, and that glow had evolved into a massive fire stretching from Mangoihe to Makaranui, about 26 kilometres wide, burning everything in its path.
The autumn had been long and dry with little rainfall, and fighting the fire was very difficult. Some families had been evacuated, while others had tried to get out on their own, but the smoke was so thick that they were driven back into their homes. The Wallaces decided to stay at home on their farm, their young son lying on the floor so he could breathe better. While the phone lines still worked, neighbouring farms rang each other intermittently to see how they were faring.
At midday the smoke was so thick it nearly blocked out the sun. Bulls School was closed because of the smoke covering the town, and even Wellington was affected by a smoke pall forcing motor car drivers to put on their lights.
Like many families in the region, the Wallaces started to patrol their house and douse the many sparks that tried to take hold. Then finally, relief. The wind changed direction and the rain began to fall. Despite the rain, the fire continued to flare up throughout the night so that, according to Doris Wallace, “the hills twinkled with a myriad of lights and darkness was shot with showers of golden flowers”.
Doris also remembered trying to make a simple cup of tea to settle everyone after the awful events. The water in the tanks, however, was smokier than a ham, and the river was full of dead fish and ash. She put out milk pans to collect rainwater over night, but found her son swimming in them the next morning!
Stories about the fire are filled with near misses and close calls. The very heavily pregnant Mrs Sopp was at home with her two children when the fire hit their property. They escaped the house and had to crawl along the fence line to get away from the flames and smoke. Dr Crawford of Whanganui sent his Model T Ford up to the farm to rescue the family.
Another man ran from his house holding his baby but slipped into a culvert and three feet of water. He somehow managed to hold the baby above the water, and his wife was able to rescue them both.
The devastation was huge. Thousands of acres of farmland were destroyed and nearly sixty homes and businesses were burnt. The Akersten family became the only human casualties. They were found in their house dead, the mother and the father shielding their baby in a vain attempt to shelter it. While most cattle sought refuge in the river, thousands of sheep perished in their paddocks and were found piled against fences or hiding under logs, and many of those that survived were so badly burnt that they had to be destroyed. The smell affected the area for weeks.
Government loans helped to alleviate the suffering, and allowed for crops to be replanted and new stock purchased. Families lived with friends and relatives or in tents until their homes could be rebuilt, which was difficult as much of the milled timber had been destroyed in the fire.
But the optimistic spirit of the region persisted. When government and local authorities visited, the women insisted on making them lunch while the men showed them areas where the grass was already beginning to grow again.
(Ref: The Generation Gap: Unimportant People and the Parapara. Wallace, Doris; 1973)
Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.