On September 1919, the State Forest Service was separated from the Lands and Survey Department, and became its own entity called the Forestry Department. The first Director of Forestry, Leon MacIntosh Ellis, a Canadian, was appointed. Eventually, a Head Office in Wellington, with seven regional conservancies were established for administration. Skilled staff were slowly recruited, the first new professionals being mostly graduates from Edinburgh.
The Director reported to the first Commissioner of State Forests, Sir Francis Dillon Bell, that 'during the past generation, two and a half million acres of virgin timberland has been destroyed, and in its place is useless barren waste - North Auckland, Thames, the central backbone of the North island, the Nelson and Marlborough Provinces and the eastern slopes of the Southern Alps'. The first statement of forest policy, from Sir Francis in 1919 which included management of indigenous forests for sustained yield and maintenance of protection forests, was augmented in 1920 by Ellis's innovative policy statement, the basic argument of which was that New Zealand's timber supply problems must be solved by action in New Zealand. Bell's policies brought him into conflict with the sawmillers who fought fiercely against his efforts to control exports. He rightly became known as the 'Father of Forestry' in New Zealand.
Bell ceased to be Commissioner of State Forests in 1922, and was briefly Prime Minister in 1925. He maintained his interest in forestry and conservation, and defended his policy which largely was formulated by the 1913 Royal Commission. Ellis drafted a new act, Forests Act 1921/22, which was to last until 1949. It incorporated further improvements for the protection of State Forests: no unauthorised fires were permitted 'within any State Forest or within 20 chains of any State Forest.' 'Closed' fire seasons could be declared - meaning that permits were required for fires - and the State could set up Fire Districts and include adjacent private land. By 1930 there were 40, covering 800,000 ha, that had been gazetted. In 1925, Ellis presented his first 5-yearly review of the Operation of National Policy. In that period, dedicated State Forest increased to 7.5 million acres (3,035,145 ha), State plantations had grown to 63,000 acres (25,495 ha), non-state planting had responded to encouragement, and State forest receipts had increased significantly. On the negative side, survey estimated that there were just 5.6 million acres (2,266,242 ha) of merchantable indigenous forest, with 39,000 million board feet (92,029,600 cubic metres) of softwood and 23,000 million board feet ( 54,273,867 cubic metres) of hardwoods, three-quarters in State forest. Little of the land still in forest following logging showed evidence of regrowth of timber-producing species.
Annual fire protection conferences were instigated. In spite of the fire protection measures contained in the Forests Act, losses from fire continued unabated, particularly in private forests. Annual Reports of the Director of Forestry 1922-27 showed2 that the numbers of fires reported for that period averaged 239 annually for the loss of 10,400 ha, 500 ha of which was State owned. Losses of virgin indigenous amounted to 14% of the total forest lost, the remainder being cutover forest and scrubland. By the early 1940s (Annual reports 1940/45) losses had fallen to an average of 5,800 ha annually of mixed forest cover (1100 ha of State forest from an average of 30 fires annually).
In the late 1920's, New Zealand was struck by the
world-wide economic depression which resulted in widespread unemployment.
Afforestation was seen by Government as constructive relief work and an increase
in planted areas during the period 1929 - 31 resulted. Ellis resigned in 1928 and was succeeded by
E. Phillips Turner, who managed to maintain the impetus for afforestation
despite opposition. State exotic forest plantings reached 300,000 acres ( 121,406
ha) in 1931, four years before the target date of 1935, and private plantings
totalled 400,000 acres ( 161,874 ha). In a letter
in 1934, responding to political pressure, Ellis reviewed the progress that
forestry had achieved. By 1931 the economic position was so bad that, but for
determined opposition from its new Director, A.D. McGavock, the Forest Service
would have been abolished and re-absorbed into the Department of Lands and
Survey. During the his directorship, the area of permanent
State forest doubled from 2.1 (849,841 ha) to 4.8 million acres (1,942,493 ha )
and the total area of land under Forest Service control rose to 7.8 million
acres ( 3,156,551 ha ), 12% of New Zealand.
Remarkably, there were no significant fires over this period. By the early 1940s (State Forest Annual Reports 1940/451), losses had been reduced to 5,800 ha annually of mixed forest cover (1,100 ha State from an average of 30 fires). Then came the disastrous fires of the first quarter of 1946 that followed periods of drought in Hawke's bay, Rotorua/Taupo and North Auckland districts. These were the most extensive fires in New Zealand's history. State losses totaled 6,665 ha in 62 fires, 50% of this in indigenous forests. Private owners lost 13,330 ha of exotic and 4,460 ha of indigenous forests, and fire ran over a further 216,500 ha of cutover forest, tussock and scrub in a total of 311 fires (State Forest Service Annual Report 1945/461). Sawmill losses probably exceeded the nine lost in the 1918 Raetahi fire.
This was a wake up call for fire protection. It resulted in new legislation for forest and rural fires that would make adequate provision for rural fire control throughout the country and, for the first time, would lay the foundation for a good rural firefighting organisation. Studies also began on forest fire danger rating systems used in other countries.
One provision of the Fire Brigades Act 1906 was to create the position of Inspector of Fire Brigades to enforce standards and encourage professionalism. The former Chief Fire Officer of Wellington Fire Brigade, TT Hugo was Inspector from 1908 until 1931. He was replaced by Roy Girling-Butcher, who served until 1950 when the position done away with.
A further Fire Brigades Act in 1926 consolidated the then existing urban fire legislation and this act remained in force until 1949. By 1946 there were 60 constituted fire districts, each with its own fire board and fire brigade, and financed by the Crown, local authority, and insurance underwriters.
In addition to the 60 fire brigades controlled by fire boards, there were also 99 fire brigades in boroughs which were not fire districts or within fire districts. These brigades were set up under authority of the Municipal Corporations Act 1920, which contained no provision for contributions from the Crown or the insurance companies, and the whole cost, therefore, had to be borne by the local authority. During the Second World War, an Emergency Precautions Scheme was set up to channel civilian effort into the war economy, and EPS workers were trained to deal with small fires. However, in March 1941, the government set up the Emergency Fire Service as a special branch of the Emergency Reserve Corps. EFS members were uniformed and trained as firefighters, and equipped with trailer pumps. The post war period saw many volunteer brigades being formed as tens of thousands of New Zealanders had received fire training either in active service or as part of the Emergency Fire Service. Wartime newsreels of bombing underscored the importance of fire protection. They naturally wanted to protect their homes once they returned to civilian life.
In 1938 the then Inspector of Fire Brigades, R. Girling-Butcher, made the first moves towards amending the legislation with a view to providing an organisation for war and civil emergencies, and to improve the finances of the smaller fire brigades. Negotiations continued for several years, and it was not until 1949, after the tragic Ballantynes fire, that the Fire Services Act was amended, and a Fire Service Council was established, under the chairmanship of Girling-Butcher.
The fire brigades dealt to vegetation fires, assisted by residents using beaters should the need arise3. There is a short National Film Unit clip of a vegetation fire on Mt Victoria, Wellington, in 1947 that illustrates this response.
It appears that forest fire protection was in-house, and did not attract much public attention. It is certain that forestry was active from the early 1920s in mounting fire patrols and maintaining lookouts. Measures were detailed in an Evening Post article. Steam trains were an ever-present hazard! Moreover, the equipment arising from war mechanisation was becoming apparent. Fixed wing aircraft began to be used for patrols, and light weight pumps were available. And the Forest Service had embarked on building up a significant fleet of engines and tankers.
In this period until the Taupo fire, while there were far fewer fires, they did present significant private losses such as the 1918 Raetahi fire that opened the period. Rural-urban interface gorse fires were an ongoing problem in cities.
The history of the West Coast reveals that there were some rampant, uncontrolled fires in Buller and the West Coast as land was cleared for farming and access for gold mining, and as a result of fires caused by sparks from bush locomotives and steam haulers. Old timers speak of fires burning for days over wide stretches of land in the Grey and Inangahua valleys, around Westport and inland between the Taramakau and Mikonui rivers. No attempt was made to put them out; they were regarded as doing "more good than harm," and few were ever recorded. However, attitudes had changed, fire control was being implicated, and the State Forestry Department was making a difference.