This season was the focus of the book New Zealand's Burning by Rollo Arnold1. It was arguably the worst in New Zealand, and saw devastating wildfires throughout most of New Zealand. These are summarised in the map opposite, and the fires are described in New Zealand's Burning1.
In all, 70 houses, 63 business premises, 9 sawmills, 15,000 sheep were lost. An area of 65,550 acres was burnt, although few fires reported burned areas.
The Stratford Example
In 1886, Stratford was a mile square clearing in the bush. It was linked both to New Plymouth in the north, and Hawera in the south by rail, the line south being completed only in the year before. At over 300 m elevation, the clearing of bush by fire had proved more difficult that in other parts of the country. The district's trees were draped with an abundance of moss, usually damp or sodden, but now tinder dry from the long drought. This season, burning began early, and was going well. Indeed, early in the New Year, the Mayor of New Plymouth had offered the loan of a manual fire engine; this was declined by the Stratford Town Board on the day before the firestorm struck. It was to arrive late in the evening of the second day of the fire. Ironically, on the day of the Stratford fire, the Hawera and Normanby Star published a report of a public meeting that successfully raised relief funds for the Hawkes Bay fire victims, and warned article, and that it was a grand time for bush settlers, with many getting excellent burns. Because of the conditions, extraordinary care was urged.
The fire struck on 6th January, lasted until the 10th, and is described in detail by Arnold. After a calm morning on the 6th, the wind had begun to freshen about 2 p.m. building up steadily to a south-easterly gale. The rising wind first merged fires from many points, creating great updrafts which then hastened their spread by wafting great showers of sparks about over the slopes of Mt Taranaki. The fires seem to have coalesced into two main conflagrations which united on the western boundary of Stratford. A little after 3 p.m., a deluge of fire embers landed in the tinder dry clearing, that was Stratford town, turning it almost instantaneously into an inferno. Trains over the next few days brought relief and firemen. The emergency was not over until steady rain began falling on the 12th January. By then, 19 homes and 25 businesses had been burnt out. Fortunately, no lives were lost, but many had been injured, and had made miraculous escapes. The area burnt is unknown.