Waimate 1878

The fire in Waimate was a portend of others that were yet to come. Musterers employed by the Studholmes were alleged to have set grass fires on Hunters Hills of the 12th of November. Three days later on the 15th, a spring northwesterly gale sprang up. This was the most devastating yet to be experienced by settlers in South Canterbury, and caused the death of a mother and child when struck a falling chimney in Timaru. The wind damage in the province was considerable.

The wind fanned the old fires. At 10 am on the 15th, they swept down a slope, engulfed Barret's sawmills, and went on to destroy six cottages near Peter's Bush. By 4 pm, a local reporter was predicting the destruction of all the bush around Waimate. There was nothing that the rural dwellers could do. By noon on the 16th, the fire had devastated Hayes' three steam mills. A stand was made at one house, which was saved, but another 12 neighbouring cottages were levelled.

The fire then swung towards the town of Waimate. A fire brigade had been formed the year before, but other than buckets, axes and hooks, there was no fire equipment. Preparations were made to evacuate the town, but just before the fire hit, a fortuitous wind change caused it to change direction. It charged onto what was then known as Manchesters Township, where another saw mill and 16 bush dwellings were destroyed. The fires finally burnt themselves out on the 23rd November.

A public meeting was held in Waimate on the 18th to seek relief funds. 37 families had been left homeless, damage was estimated at 40,000 and 500,000 worth of standing timber had been destroyed. Even although a mills were rebuilt, the timber industry around Waimate was ruined, and many families had to leave the district.