The Balmoral Forest Fire was the first significant fire that challenged the fire protection system created by the Forest Service in the aftermath of the 1946 Taupo fire and the new Forest and Rural Fires Act 1947. It holds the record for being the second largest plantation fire in NZ and, at 2991 ha, the largest for a state or government owned exotic forest. 50 years after the event, an account was written by retired ranger John Ward QSM to mark the 15 years since the formation of the National Rural Fire Authority. John1 concluded that 'the dramatic events of November 25-28 were due firstly to an element of bad luck. This was coupled with extreme weather patterns resulting in a fire beyond the scope and experience of most the personnel involved. It was a classic case of northwest induced re-ignition, a grim fact of life on the Canterbury scene, before and since'.
In 1955, the Balmoral Forest was the largest in Canterbury, comprising 7446 ha of radiata, corsican and ponderosa pine. The ages of the compartments were in the range 24 to 32 years2. The land is flat, and summers are hot and dry; average rainfall 675 mm. In the four weeks before the fire, only 2 mm of rain was recorded at Balmoral HQ, but there had been ≥0.6 mm of rain 3 days before the major run. On the day of the fire, 25 November, there was a strong northwesterly wind with showers. The fire weather indices were FFMC=88.5, DMC=64, DC=205, ISI=55, BUI=72, and FWI=792.
Friday Night 25 - 26 November
Saturday 26 November
By 1130, the fire run had fanned out to a 3.2 km front, and had traveled 3.2 km through the forest. Priorities were to control the original slash burn on the west side of Balmoral Station Rd that still had potential to start other fires; to stop the flank of main fire from jumping west across Balmoral Station Rd; and to stop the main fire by burning out from forest compartment firebreaks to the south-east of the main head. The burnout attempts failed. By 1400, the head had crossed SH7 at several points, and was burning strongly heading to the Hurunui River. The fire was burning along the Balmoral Station Rd, and 200 men were posted there to ensure that the firebreak that the road represented would not be breached. A 2.4 km break was being built to protect the entire northern flank at the rear of the fire. Another 3.6 km of fire breaks were completed during the day. Most of Balmoral Village was evacuated.
At 1700, the wind changed to the southwest, still at gale force, and the constructed fire breaks were breached or outflanked. All crews and equipment had to be withdrawn quickly; one bulldozer was abandoned and partly damaged. An hour later, the wind swung back to the northwest, driving many fires in new directions, with another crossing SH7. Fresh crews were arriving, including an Army detachment of two officers and 50 other ranks. The forestry crews were being drawn from all over the country, including staff from the North Island. Time and again, crews had to retreat from their positions as they saw 'gaseous clouds exploding in great balls of fire 60-70m above the tree tops'.
Sunday 27 November
Monday 28 November
The number of personnel in fighting the fire is unknown. In additional to Forest Staff and contractors, NZFS trucks from Waiau and Culverden were present (records show 6 fire engines in total), and considerable help was received from Hurunui farmers. Army personnel totaled 12 officers and 385 other ranks. Other than the old saw mill that was the cause of the forest fire, no structures were lost. One crew, sent with a fire engine to protect a forestry house on the SH7 at the northeast corner of the forest, had a desperate struggle. They were set in position when the crown fire went through above them at tremendous speed, dropping burning cones and debris to start spot fires around them. They withdrew, and lost a few lengths of hose, but regrouped to successfully deal with the following surface fire.
Viewed from a 2005 perspective, John Ward1 thought that aerial suppression may have helped when the wind dropped on the Sunday afternoon, but questioned if we would have enough men to patrol the Balmoral Station Rd and keep the main forest block safe.