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The history of the Motueka Volunteer Fire Brigade

Posted October 11th, 2012
By Stuart Blathwayt

In the October 26th 1898 edition of Motueka’s Colonist newspaper, a letter to the editor appeared calling for the formation of a fire brigade for the town but went unanswered until 1905.

A series of meetings took place with the intent to form a brigade. The spark for these meetings was the disastrous Collingwood fire in December 1904 in which most of the town burnt down.

While the meeting did result in the purchase of a chemical fire engine (photo, right), from W.A.J. Dutch in Wellington, for an informal brigade to use, it wouldn’t be until the 12th April 1912 that the Council would officially form the Motueka Fire Brigade.

Lou Naylor was it’s first Captain and the brigade held it’s first meeting on the 23rd April 1912. By this time the chemical engine had fallen into a state of disrepair with a habit of ejecting the chemical out the wrong end. “Carbonate of soda and sulphuric acid maybe alright on a fire, but as a spray for the fire brigade and the crowd, the only result was sulphurous language” as it was described at a council meeting.

A 30 man manual pump was purchased, for £106 from the Hastings Fire Brigade to replace the chemical engine, and had it’s first major test when the Post Office Hotel caught fire (photo below). It broke out on a Sunday afternoon, December 8th, 1912, and two of the firemen had to race back from Woodman's Hill where they were shooting.

The recently purchased manual engine was pulled to the scene, but the firemen could do little to save the building. The hotel was rebuilt immediately but was later the scene of another big fire, the biggest in Motueka 's history.

The public today expects even a volunteer brigade to be able to put out or at least control major commercial fires. But this was hardly the expectation of the Motueka Volunteer Fire Brigade in the early years after its formation. For many years, the brigade existed with only the most basic equipment and could be slow to get to the scene of a fire, it needed lots of manpower to keep up a flow of water.

Until 1976, when a national service was formed, the brigade was funded largely by the Borough Council which facing many other demands was unable to give the brigade adequate means to fight major fires.

Not surprisingly, a high proportion of fires in Motueka’s early 1900’s resulted in a total loss of the property. The year 1920 proved to be particularly bad, with fires causing more than £22,000 worth of damage.

On the 3rd of March that year there was a big fire at Motueka’s Port which caused the total loss of a vinegar making and apple drying factory, with the loss put at £12,900. The factory was owned by Nelson District Fruit-packers and was on the site where Talleys Fisheries is today. Only a week later Motueka firemen were called out to another big blaze at the home of a prominent merchant, Abraham Manoy. 18 years later Manoy was also to loose his main shop to fire.

1926 saw the fire brigade receive an additional appliance, a new Model T Ford with a Dennis pump fitted on the front. This appliance greatly increased the capabilities of the brigade but large fires were still difficult to bring under control.

In 1937 there was a spectacular fire which razed the premises of Thompson and Hills, on the site where the Unilever factory was built later and where Motueka Lumber stands today (photo, right).

The fire occurred during the daytime at the weekend and quickly attracted a crowd of onlookers. The building was destroyed, but the firm later rebuilt on the site. In this fire, the brigade appeared to have difficulty getting enough water on to the fire.

Only a year later the biggest blaze in Motueka's history was to prove that the brigade's equipment was inadequate for the job the men were being asked to do. Not only was its fire engine late at the scene on the morning of August 1st, 1938, because it was a frosty morning and the fire engine would not start. It was later found to have a flat battery.

The pumping unit was taken to the fire before the fire engine, but the brigades-men could not cope with the massive fire. Their pumps, hoses and the water supply were simply inadequate to deal with a really big fire. What began as a hotel fire grew in intensity, creating its own wind until it spread to engulf two nearby department stores and several other shops and then finally the town's handsome brick and concrete post office.

The Evening Mail of the time described the 1938 fire as "the most extensive and disastrous in the history of the borough of Motueka and one of the most serious in the Nelson district".

A hose was run from a pipe alongside the Post Office to Pah St in an endeavour to save Manoy's stores (on the north side of the street). The water pumping unit was slow in its delivery and the hose caught fire before the water could be put into it. There was terrific heat in the streets and the brigade was driven back and endeavoured to save adjacent buildings.

The fire leapt High and Pah Sts and set fire to the shops owned by Mr Manoy. For the firemen too, things were not going well. Not long after the fire engine was brought to the scene, the vehicle itself caught fire. Brigades-men had to turn their hoses from the fire to their own fire engine. The fire in the truck was quickly put out and the only damage was blistered paintwork.

In the Post Office across the road, the heat was building up. Suddenly windows in the Post Office blew out as in an explosion and suddenly the whole building was blazing.

Nigel Thorn, who was manning the exchange, quickly told the Nelson exchange of the situation, took an axe and chopped through the telephone cables coming in to the exchange board. He and helpers then carried the exchange board out of the building, an action for which he was later rewarded with a payment of £5. Meanwhile, the fire itself continued like a fireball, with the heat threatening other buildings. Live embers from the fire were flying high up in the sky and falling about 1km away, north of Fearon St.

The Evening Mail later praised the efforts of the brigade saying that the 'greatest credit’ was due to them for their strenuous efforts against such hopeless odds. "No brigade could have made better use of the equipment and firefighting facilities which were available," the paper said. It was reported that the light from the large fire was so bright it woke people living in Tahunanui.

The Fire Brigade immediately ordered new equipment including a quantity of new hoses. The brigade also began a roster of firemen sleeping in the station. They also had the task of starting and running the fire engine, and making sure the battery was not flat.

If the Motueka Volunteer Fire Brigade suffered an indignity in August, 1938. when it’s own fire engine caught fire, it suffered another on July 10th 1965 when it’s fire station, on its present site, caught fire.

The firemen were at a fire at the Unilever factory in High St south (another large fire in Motueka’s history) when they were told of the fire at the station itself. Fire destroyed sleeping quarters for three men and another room. The social room was also badly damaged by smoke and water.

Motueka’s first fire station was situated approximately where the Gothic Restaurant is today. In 1948 the land on which the station now stands was bought from the Nelson Diocesan Trust Board. It was planned to convert the building on it, the Horticultural Hall, to a fire station. With the help of the subsidy, the building was converted and the new fire station was opened on October 26,1951.

After the 1965 fire, planning had to begin again on a station. It took 12 months for design work, the various approvals, raising the necessary loan and for the building to go ahead. It was finally built at a cost of £12,100.

The town has shown its support for the firemen's efforts by funding an emergency services vehicle with a wide range of equipment to deal with emergencies. But some things it seems never change. In most of Motueka the firefighters still remain dependent on the system of fire wells and bores, but now also have a partial reticulated scheme in the town and this is gradually being expanded as spare funds become available to replace the wells and bores.

The main equipment used by the brigade, the fire engine, has been greatly improved. A Model A Ford used by the brigade was succeeded by a Ford V8, and then came a Land Rover, affectionately known as “Little Flick”.

In 1963 came the biggest single lift in fire-fighting capability for the Motueka brigade with the arrival of a Karrier Gamecock fire engine, The Karrier, was fitted with a Dennis pump and a tank holding 200 gallons of water. It carried low pressure fog guns and smaller hose reels for minor fires. It served the brigade well for more than 20 years.

Motueka firemen have had to fight a wide variety of different fires, they have included a good number of hop and tobacco kiln fires, and house fires in homes in more isolated spots.

Another big fire remembered by many was on the night of November 25th, 1980, when the Majestic Theatre, a hamburger bar and music shop were razed.

The big blaze came at about 11:30pm, just after a screening of the New Zealand film "Beyond Reasonable Doubt". No one was in the building at the time, though the hamburger bar had closed only a few minutes before the alarm was sounded. The brigade was quickly on the scene but firemen were unable to get inside the building and in spite of their efforts pumping water, the fire spread. It was not long before the theatre building was ablaze from end to end.

The water supply from the same bores used 40 years earlier in the big Post Office fire was reported to be "not good" at the start of the firefighting, but later improved. Firemen from Kaiteriteri, Mapua and the Forest Service also fought the fire. The building, however, was lost. Only the concrete facade remained standing.

The Motueka brigade has been involved in fighting some frightening forest and scrub fires. Two that stand out are the Harakeke fire of 1979 where a burnoff got out of control and swept through 150ha, and the fire of January 30th, 1983, when two baches were destroyed and a big residential area threatened at Kaiteriteri.

In both fires Motueka firemen worked in conjunction with Forest Service employees, and helicopters with monsoon buckets played a big role.

The firemen have had to fight some unusual fires, like a fire on a fishing-boat in 1981 when they had to travel by runabout from Kaiteriteri to near Adele Island. They then helped put out a fire on the fishing boat Quest. The boat was extensively damaged.

They have also had to face a wider range of dangers, from toxic chemicals and hazardous substances. In 1984, before the ICI fire in Auckland raised awareness of the dangers of chemicals in fires, a Motueka fireman had to be treated in the intensive care ward of Nelson Hospital because of chemical fumes he inhaled while fighting a fire in a tobacco shed where various sprays had been stored.

The firemen's equipment has continued to improve, with a new International 1800 fire engine added in 1983. The popular Karrier went to Upper Moutere. and Little Flick, the Land Rover that had served the town for 30 years, went to Ngatimoti in 1984.

Motueka’s longest serving member Jock Primmer retired in 1992 after completing 50 years gaining a double gold star medal and being awarded the Queens Fire Service Medal. Jock joined the brigade as a thirteen year old, having to polish the brass on the engines and acting as the message boy. He had to pursue the Ford Modal A and V8 fire engines on a “rattle-trap” bicycle in all weathers and would often meet them returning from the call. Jock worked his way up through the ranks and was made Chief Fire Officer in 1972.

His father Ralph had also been in the brigade since 1918 completing 40 years and also making Chief before retiring in 1958. The Motueka brigade has had a number of other family names which have been long serving. As well as the Primmer’s there have been the Adair’s, Simpson’s and Hovenden’s.

1997 was a busy year for the brigade and one word dominated the middle of the year “ARSON”. Over June and July nine arsons turned up the heat in Motueka. Police, firefighters, security firms, schools and businesses had to contend with fear and frustration while the arsonist remained at large.

The first fire occurred at the Central Auction Mart and Photo Optrix on July the 15th followed by United Video and four other business on the 30th. More fires followed on July 7, July 8, July 15, July 21, July 24, July 27 and July 28. Most of them in the town's centre, two were at Parklands School. Youths are found responsible for the smaller of them, but later police arrested the adult arsonist.

There was no let up for the brigade when in October a large forest fire broke out at Tasman. One hundred firefighters, three helicopters, 12 rural fire engines and nine bulldozers and diggers worked to get the fire extinguished. The gorse and scrub that grew throughout the Harakeke block of the Moutere Hills Forest was adding to the problem and 20 homes had to be evacuated as 400ha of forest was destroyed.

Since the turn of the centaury the big fires have continued with the Horncastle fire in 2003 (photo, right), just six days after Mike Riddell, the current Chief Fire Office took over the reins from Les Simpson.

Then the next year the Carpet Court building would burn down in a spectacular fire right opposite the fire station (photo below).

Firefighters from Motueka have also been called on to assist with fires outside their normal turnout area. The most notable in recent times being the Fonterra Fire where all three of Motueka appliances were called over the Takaka hill to help (photo below).

They spent all night fighting the fire before returning the following morning and most of the firefighters having to go to their normal day jobs.

The role of the brigade has also changed over the years with the brigade not only called to fires but about a third of its calls being to car accidents as well as other events from plane crashes, hazardous spills, animal rescues and even bomb scares.

This has meant that the modern fire appliances are required to carry a lot more equipment and firefighters must spend more time training for its use in specialist situations.

There is one major aspect to the fire brigade that hasn’t changed through the years and without it a volunteer fire brigade would struggle to survive. The support and understanding brigade members get from their families and partners.

The families and partners have to put up with firefighters running out at the most inconvenient times when the siren goes, not knowing if they’re going to be back in half an hour or hours later.

Community and firefighter employer support has also played a vital roll with employers allowing firefighters time off to attend call-outs and the community supporting fundraising so the brigade can purchase new or replace aging specialist equipment that is not funded by the Fire Service.

With the continued support Motueka’s Volunteer Fire Brigade looks forward to meeting the challengers of another 100 years of community service.

Comment by Gary Westbury:
[Posted 1 November 2012]

There has been some real effort in producing the article but there is still more to be told. Their night responses will now be slower as nobody is on station at night - more pre-burn time for night fires. Administration offices in lieu of responders????


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