The Canterbury Plains have been affected by fire for many centuries. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal from Canterbury Plains put forest fires at 628, 3500 and 6495 years ago, the first known fire on the Plains being in about 4530BC. Charcoal found in the Templeton district was kanuka, and at Broadfield, beech and matai. These fires must have started from natural causes as there was no known evidence of human occupation.
The first known human inhabitants of the Canterbury Plains were Maori who had moved south looking for riches such as pounamu (greenstone). It is known that prior to this time (17th century), the Canterbury Plains were covered in forest consisting of N.Z. broom, kowhai and kanuka. These forests were destroyed by fire. It is not known if these fires were deliberately lit to clear the land and got out of control or were accidentally started by camp fires.
Maori legend tells of Tamatea (a moa hunter) who started a fire which razed all the trees. Maori believe that there had to be a balance between wind and fire or man would be destroyed. They believe that uira (earthquakes) and ru (lightning) were fire at the earth end of the sky. The risk of wind and fire leading to disaster must have been no more evident than on the Canterbury Plains where the potential for fire destroying large areas was great when mauru (nor'wester) was prevalent.
By the time Europeans settled in Canterbury, the majority of the Plains were covered with tussock, manuka, matagouri, broom, flax, cabbage trees and the occasional kowhai.
These new settlers also used fire to clear areas for farming. Many of these fires burned out of control. This type of vegetation was also prone to smouldering and would reignite when the wind intensified, a formula for disaster.
The Rolleston area is particularly susceptible to fire during dry, windy seasons. The soil is Eyre shallow silt loam, Templeton fine sandy loam and Eyre sandy loam which are excessively drained soils of medium to low moisture storage capacity. This means that the soil quickly dries out and grasses and vegetation which cover the area quickly become fuel for scrub fires. The Local Authorities built a water race system to help combat this problem by providing water for stock. This is often the only water supply for firefighting in some areas. These water races were started on 26th August 1884 and completed on 2nd May 1887.
Rolleston was covered in large runs until the 1950's. There were many hectares of wheat and it was only too common for fires to burn large areas of these fields. In recent times, these farms have been broken into small holdings.
Because of the high fire risk posed in the Rolleston area, there has long been an informal fire fighting force and this was often called out to fight major rural fires. Initially, whenever smoke was seen, all men seeing it would make their way to the fire with whatever equipment they could find to fight the fire. This equipment consisted mostly of sacks and shovels or branches from trees. Some farmers would keep sacks hanging over fences near water races for fire fighting. Unfortunately, if the price of sacks went up, the sacks would disappear and firefighters would have to resort to branches again.
It is not recorded when the Lincoln Telephone Exchange began to summon the firefighting force by giving six short and one long ring over the party lines. Available men would only have to lift the phone and they would be told where the fire was.
Steam trains were a major cause of fires near Rolleston. The trains would be stoked to get full steam to head uphill to Sheffield, causing more sparks and the regular emptying of the fire box. On March 7, 1946 an article appeared in "The Press" questioning the danger of locomotive sparks. This article stated that 20 out of 69 reported fires over a four year period were caused by trains. It was suggested the Railways should look at using a different type of coal. The Railways always denied that trains caused fires and when approached by residents of Rolleston to assist in the purchase of firefighting equipment, they declined. Locals who fought fires in the area all declared that the trains did cause fires. During dry periods, they would have sacks at the ready to fight these fires which would occur most evenings. The six o'clock express appears to have been the biggest culprit.
In the early days, Rolleston was backed up by other local fire fighting forces. Burnham Camp had a fire brigade and a large force of soldiers available who were often utilised at large fires. Weedons Air Force Base had a fire section described in "Contract" Jan 1954, "which could well be the envy of any Metropolitan Fire Chief'. Springston had a fire party which was run by Springs County under the control of Norm Keast and utilising a County water tanker which dampened down the local roads and the council staff as a work force. Lincoln College had a fire party which had a Ford V8 fire appliance with a front mounted pump which later became a replacement pump at Rolleston. West Melton also had a fire party. W A Habgood Ltd had a firefighting force utilising tanks used to transport salmon. John Habgood was later to be an inaugural member of Lincoln V.F.B. and its first Chief Fire Officer. The Selwyn Plantation Board had a tanker and equipment stationed at the corner of Dunns Crossing and Main South Roads. This was under the care of Ken Manson.
There were many plantations in the area and fires in these feature only too regularly in Rolleston's history. From 1878 to 1885, 6,000 hectares of gum, wattle and pine were planted. The Skellerup family owned one of these plantations located at Dunns Crossing Road.
On 12 July 1945, a nor'west gale followed by heavy snow rendered most of the trees (which were just reaching maturity) fit only for firewood. Shortly after this, a fire would have destroyed the plantation if it had not been for the actions of the Rolleston volunteers. To show their gratitude, the Skellerups provided an 800 gallon firefighting tank. The Skellerups continued to own the plantation until 1983 when it was sold to the Selwyn Plantation Board. It is still called the Skellerup Plantation.
The water tank was kept on a loading bank at the Canterbury Tractor Company Ltd; located on the site which was previously Pacific Vet (now a vacant block of land) on the Main South Road. The first available truck would load the tank and go to the fire. It is told that one of these trucks, a Dodge Fargo, donated by John Booth of Canterbury Tractor Co Ltd, broke down and the tank was left on it and it was towed to fires by the first available truck or tractor. Dave Monty recalls towing the Fargo to the Junction Service Station where he got it running. The Dodge was reported to have a top speed of 15mph. It was then kept at the Junction Service Station (now B P Rolleston).
The Junction Service Station had a long involvement with the organising of fire fighting as this was a good meeting place and had a telephone (installed in 1932). The present Junction Service Station was built in 1941 and was fitted with a watchtower for observing any Japanese invasion. (It didn't see any invaders but it would be interesting to know how many fires were spotted from there). From 1952, the manager of the service station took the calls and responded the tanker. Dave Monty was one of the managers to fill this position. Firefighters would make their way to the service station or directly to the fire. In 1952 the Dodge was replaced by a General Motors Chev 4x4 "Puddle Jumper". This was fitted with the water tank donated by Skellerups.
There were several fires reported in the newspapers involving plantations, some lasting several days. Some of the larger fires were:
• 25 January 1926 Grass fire threatened Burnham Military Camp ("The Press" 26 Jan 1926)
• 16 April 1933 250 acres of plantation (Jones Plantation) and 400 acres grass destroyed by fire between Rolleston and Burnham. Mr W J Hamilton's house was completely surrounded by fire.
• July 1945 60 acres Jones' Plantation again destroyed by fire following a snow storm.
• 19 February 1946 Fire destroys 20 acres of Chamberlain's Plantation.
• 30 January 1952 70 acres of Selwyn Plantation between Rolleston and Burnham destroyed.
• 1 February 1952 14 fires break out between Rolleston and Burnham following yesterday's fire.
• 25 February 1959 400 acres Tweed's, Jones', Bates' and Kensington Plantations destroyed (estimated damage 20,000 pounds). At this fire Stan Palmer (previously CFO Amberley) recalled that whilst keeping a watch overnight for hotspots, they noticed an area that Burnham was supposed to be responsible for was burning well. On investigation, they discovered a group of soldiers cooking their tea over a camp fire.
• 24 January 1962 200 acres between Turnbull's Plantation and Two Chain Road destroyed.
The biggest fire reported in Rolleston's history was started by a steam roller which involved a building on the Main South Road. At 1130hrs on 3 February 1932 the fire started near the corner of Elizabeth Street. Fanned by hot winds, it raced towards Springston. Spread by burning rabbits, it burnt broom, gorse and plantations.
It was reported in "The Press" the following day "Farm houses were saved miraculously from flames.... although the orchards surrounding homesteads were burnt, the buildings escaped." Most damage was done in the block between Goulds Road, Springston and Maddison East Roads. Mr C M Barnett lost 80 acres of young pine trees and a three bedroom house (which contradicts the Press report). "The Press" reported that the Skellerup Plantation was saved by a group of Lincoln College students and staff who prevented the fire jumping from a burning paddock nearly a half mile away. Mr R Fougers was also mentioned for his efforts driving up and down the road using wet sacks at each outbreak. It was Sale day and dozens of people came from the Addington Saleyards to help. A winner of the Auckland and Wellington Trotting Cup, Locanda Mac, was used to round up sheep in the path of the fire. These sheep were sent to Hagley Park for safety and feeding.
Many farms were left fenceless. A Dynes Road resident was lucky when fire swept under the galley they lived in and left it untouched. The southwest change which usually follows a Nor'wester assisted the firefighters in beating the fire, but not before the Brosnahans lost a Chevrolet car. Locals pitched in so they could buy an Essex.
There were also some property fires to contend with. On 14 July 1930 "The Press" reported that on 13 July 1930, the single storey Rolleston Hotel, a local landmark, was completely destroyed. The licensee and lessee, Mr Davis and his wife were lucky to escape. All that was saved was a piano and a few other articles. Mr Thomas Glen, the owner, and Mr Davis were underinsured. The fire was fought by willing helpers using buckets to get water from the nearby water race. The cause of the fire was never identified. The present hotel is built on the same site.
Rolleston firefighters attended a fire at the sawmill at Burnham which must have occurred in the late '50s or early '60s. The 'Puddle Jumper' attended this, ferrying water from the water race outside Burnham Camp to the Burnham Military Fire Brigade.
In the early days, firefighting was efficient although informal, poorly equipped, and with no official recognition. As the years went by, more and more organisation accrued. With the telephone exchange turnout system (six long, one short), the acquisition of the 800 gallon water tanker, some hose and a pump firefighting was organised firstly from the Canterbury Tractor Company Ltd and then the Junction Service Station. The single thing which must have lead to more organisation and the beginnings of a command structure was the recognition of the proprietor of the Junction Service Station as Firemaster.