A major house fire in 1943 was the final incentive needed by Wainuiomata residents to form their own local volunteer fire brigade. The Wainuiomata Volunteer Fire Brigade was officially formed on the 4th September 1944 after many months of deliberations and meetings. Mr J.S. Dunn, the Brigade’s first superintendent, organised the Brigade supported by Mr. F. Wise, a director of the Wainuiomata Development Company. The Brigade joined the UFBA in 1944.
The first “appliance” was a Morris 8 car owned by Ted Smith. When the siren sounded an alarm, the car would race to the station and pick up the gear before proceeding to the fire. During these early years, as there were few telephones, when an incident occurred people were required to go to the station to set off the alarm siren which was located on the front of the station building.
The first station was built in 1945 opposite Wainuiomata Primary School. The Wainuiomata Development Company donated the land and timber. Stokes Valley Fire Brigade donated a Gwynn trailer; several lengths of old hose (the first percolating hose) and a standpipe. So the Brigade had access to the underground mains. The donation of a ladder from the Mobil Oil Company of Waiwhetu and thedevelopment of a trailer pump from a Model A motor meant that the Brigade was, by the standards of the day, well equipped. Both the trailer and pump were towed to fire calls using any vehicle that happened to be available. In some cases a 33 seater bus was used. This, it would seem, came about not because it was press-ganged into service in passing, but rather because one of the Brigade members, Artie Kilmister was the local bus driver.
In 1946 the first real fire engine arrived: a Ford V8 Marmon Herrington 4 wheel drive. This truck, an ex Air Force Tender, stayed in service until 1965. It did not have flashing lights, only a siren. If this failed, as it sometimes did, then someone on the truck would yell as politely as possible “Get out of the way!” Even if those weren’t exactly the words used, the meaning was usually obvious.
With the introduction of the Fire Services Act 1949, there came a change to the control, funding and administration of the Brigade. The Wainuiomata Fire Brigade Committee was formed as part of the Hutt County Urban Fire Authority with J.S. Dunn as the Brigade’s representative. The Authority, in turn, was responsible to the Fire Service Council. Though the Authority had responsibility for the day to day running of the Brigade – guided by recommendations from each Brigade’s committee – the Fire Service Council had over all responsibility and major items of expenditure such as new buildings and equipment, had to be approved by it.
Late in 1950 the Brigade was given a special grant of fifty pounds to purchase uniforms and as the Brigade wanted to use this for buying boots, permission had to be gained from the Fire Service Council. The Council also gave permission for a 5 year loan of Â£220 for sundry plant and equipment. It was about this time that application was made for the purchase of a fire alarm system.
As the decade progressed so did the Brigade. The Riverside hall was built by volunteer labour to be used as a social room as the station was too small. Early in the 1950’s the 111 system was installed in Wainuiomata, which meant that people could ring Wellington direct or they could telephone the Clarke’s residence, which was next door to the fire station. If the Clarke’s received a “call” they would manually activate the siren. The switch for this was located beside the back door of the Clarke’s home. Because of this, the Clarke’s could not go out together, as one of them had to stay home.
The Brigade’s first change of leadership occurred in 1953 when Jack Dunn resigned as Superintendent due to business commitments and Frank McGowan was appointed Chief Fire Officer in his place. (1953 was the year in which the term Chief Fire Officer replaced that of Superintendent.)
As the valley developed so the incidence of gorse fires increased. Section clearing the resultant “burn offs” were, all too often, getting out of control and spreading. Little, if any, thought to fire control or suppression was apparent and in some cases there was no appreciation of the flammability of gorse whether cut or standing. The three words most often heard from those responsible for an outbreak were “I didn’t think….” .
Unfortunately Brigade records for the early 60’s have been lost. All that remain are the executive minute book from 1966 onwards and the social committee minute book which covers the period from 1959 to early 1969. Much of the information for this time comes from newspaper articles or recollections of those in the Brigade at the time.
The Marmon Herrington was still in use as a fire appliance. A Land Rover, ex-Belmont, was added in 1962. With a crew of four on the back, plus its rear mounted pump, this appliance tended to be a little light on the steering and some hair-raising rides were experienced down Moore’s Valley and Coast Roads. In 1963 the Brigade received its first “real” fire fighting appliance a Commer Karrier Gamecock. By 1966 plans for the purchase of a new fire vehicle and the new station were under way. In December 1966 the Fire Service Council gave approval for the purchase of the new machine and a rabbit potable pump but there were still problems with the specifications for the new station. At about the same time the Fire Authority gave approval for radio circuits and new telephone lines.
In 1968 a new TK Bedford with a tank capacity of 160 gallons was purchased. However it was 12 months before it was brought into “active” service, as it would not fit into the Homedale Station. It was stored in a shed at the County yard and used for practice drills and major gorse fires.
At the same time as this appliance was handed over to the Brigade, the Wainuiomata Lions club donated a high expansion foam generator imported from Australia and costing $600. The generator comprised a nylon tunnel, a fan and an induction tube. It was designed to fill a burning house with foam to suffocate the fire. Its promoters claimed it could also be used to lay a trail of foam ahead of a gorse fire to act as a firebreak but this theory was never put to the test.
It was during the 60’s that radios were finally bought for the appliances and direct contact with the station could be made. Prior to this calls were recorded following the return to station.
George Holcroft received fire calls at the station during work hours but if he was absent then calls went by direct line to Les Clarke or Ron Terry. Details of the call would then be taken to the station and the siren activated. Everybody would turn out from the CFO down and the CFO would take charge at the fire ground. Firemen turning out would either proceed to the station or if they saw the fire, directly to it. This sometimes meant a procession of cars turned up at a fire. If help was needed then the nearest telephone was used. At this time, when it came to major fires, Wainuiomata was basically on its own and if extra help was required then members of the public were called upon.
One source of help came in 1964 when Salvation Army Officer Allan Billham organised a Junior Brigade. Three of the members were Alan Short, Claude Wanoa and Ted Hodge. The young members trained every Wednesday night at the fire station. They were supplied with helmets, coats, and belts by the Brigade but were not allowed to ride the appliances. They turned out when called by Mrs. Billham and rode their bikes to the fire. At the fire ground they ran messages and carried hoses. The first fire they attended was a gorse fire on 6 November 1964.
Previously there had been messengers attached to the brigade. These were young boys of fourteen to sixteen who belonged to the Brigade but whose service was recorded as half service only. At sixteen messengers were eligible to become full members.
Methods of fighting fires were different in the 60’s because of the equipment available. Most property fires were tackled from the outside because no breathing apparatus was available. The major aim of the exercise was to use as many deliveries as available to get as much water as possible onto the fire in the shortest time. This often resulted in more water damage than fire damage. Eventually BA’s were obtained but the first time one was used “in anger” there were so many deliveries that the mask was washed off the wearer’s (Don Campbell) face.
In 1965 the Brigade experienced its first fatal fire. This occurred in the home of L. Jigger in Bull Avenue. A 12 month old baby was rescued from the house by her father but because of the intense heat he had been unable to get back in for another child aged about four. It was only when Brigade members, wearing BA, were able to enter the house that the body of the second child was found in the passage. This fire was so intense that the floors were burnt completely through. The fire was thought to have started in an electric drying cupboard.
In 1968 the Brigade again experienced a fatal fire. This occurred in Frederick Street not far from the home of (now) CFO Eric Speck. The following is his recollection of the fire.
“I recall very well the most tragic property fire in the Brigade’s history, with the loss of two lives. It happened during August 1968,at approximately 1.30am on a cold and very foggy morning.
I was woken up by a loud explosion and on looking up to the small window over my bed, I noticed a red glow. I jumped out of bed, into my protective clothing and rushed out the back door where I met up with my neighbour David Stead who was also a member of the brigade. We could see the intense red glow and heard the crackling of the fire, together with the fire siren from the old village. In the fog it looked and sounded eerie and appeared to be very close in the neighbourhood.
Dave and I drove down Frederick Street and only six houses down the road, at No.90, we were met with a scenario I will never forget for the rest of my life.
The property of the Greenaway family was well alight with a third of the roof already partly burned away. Neville Twort and Paul Waite were arriving at the scene at almost the same time.
Neighbours of the Greenaways screamed that the family members were still inside the house. At this stage the fire hadn’t spread to one of the three bedrooms and Neville asked me to break into the rear bedroom and make a search. All I had at the time was an axe, which in those day’s firefighters carried on their belt.
I used the axe to break the glass of the window and climbed through the opening into the room. The room was heavily smoke logged; I couldn’t see a thing. I made a quick search, found nobody and dived out the window again, as at this stage, I was almost overcome by the smoke. We later found out that this was the bedroom of their son who was away on the night of the fire.
After catching my breath in fresh air, I proceeded to the front of the house where Neville Twort attempted to break into the main bedroom to rescue Mr and Mrs Greenaway. As he was climbing through the window he lost his helmet into the room. I passed him mine, but unfortunately Neville was forced back by the intense heat and fierce flames, which travelled through the open bedroom door like the flames in a furnace.
By this time we could hear the siren of the approaching appliance in the distance. The four of us did everything humanly possible to save the family. I remember saying aloud “come and hurry up”, as it seemed like hours to wait for the fire appliance to arrive. All we could do in the meantime was to clear the nearest hydrant. When the appliance arrived we all helped, running out deliveries and feeders.
Three deliveries were used and the fire was relatively quickly brought under control.
A rescue team dressed with Breathing Apparatus entered the building almost immediately. The first person rescued was Arthur Greenaway. He was still alive, but very ill. We administered oxygen and air to him on the lawn in the front of the house.
The next person found was their daughter, 14 year old Sandra who was burned beyond recognition. She was left in her bedroom until the arrival of the police.
Olive Greenaway, the mother, was found in the bedroom badly burned and presumed dead. However, the local Doctor Ingrid Seeman, detected a faint sign of life. In those days the ambulance service wasn’t as efficient and Dr Seeman transported Mrs Greenaway in the back of her station wagon to meet the ambulance. Arthur Greenaway was also rushed to hospital but sadly died two days later.
Olive Greenaway spent a very long time in hospital and rehabilitation centres. She lost some fingers and was blind as a result of the fire.
A few days after the fire the remains of the property were bulldozed to the ground. Today two flats are built on the section and the original concrete garage foundation and floor are still used for car parks.
At the beginning of 1971 the pace picked up and much of the early months was dedicated to work on the new station. As the year progressed concern was expressed about the changeover date to the new station and this was eventually set down for 27 May 1971. No major problems were experienced with the changeover and the first call from the new station came in at 0753 on 28 May.
The new station was officially opened on 27/7/71 at 1435. The opening which began with an inspection of the Brigade was attended by such dignitaries as Mr J.B. Matthews, Chairman of the Hutt County Council, Dominion Chief Fire Service Officer G. Drummond, Councillor G. Moffat, Chairman of the Fire Service Council Mr Perryman and the Hon. F. Colman M.P.
Although the main base for the Brigade was now the Fitzherbert Fire Station it had been decided to keep one appliance at the Homedale Station and for some members this became the station to which they turned out. Also with the change to the new station came the decision to employ a permanent full time station keeper whose sole responsibility was the care and maintenance of the station. In 1972 a second station keeper was appointed. In 1975 Colin Andrews was appointed as assistant station keeper and Colin Wright took up the position of station keeper. Thus began the era of “the two Colins” which lasted until the retirement of C. Andrews in 1993.
In 1974 Third Officer Ron Terry became the Brigade’s representative on the Fire Authority and eventually he became chairman of this body. He held this office until the Authority handed over control to the Fire service Commission on 1st April 1976.
This changeover was to be the last major change the Brigade was to see to its administration structure. A single, central controlling body was now responsible for the provision of equipment, uniforms and appliances as well as the employment of the station keepers. It also meant that Wainuiomata became tied into a network of brigades that were able to assist in major incidents. Wainuiomata could also be called upon to help with incidents outside the valley.
The person who was responsible for overseeing all the changes to the Brigade as a result of the change over was the relatively new CFO Bill Molenaar who had become Chief on the death of George Holcroft in 1975. At the same time Bill also became senior station keeper. With the changeover to the new controlling body came a new appliance in 1976, pocket alarms in 1978 and changes in protective gear for fire fighting. Also added to the Brigade’s list of equipment were air bags donated in 1973 and an emergency tender donated in 1977 by the “Helping Hand” organisation.
One of the “special aids” available to the Brigade from 1970 was the Wainuiomata Bush Force.
The 1960’s had been characterised by a large number of scrub fires and in the late 60’s concern had been expressed by some sections of the public about the devastating effect of major fires on the regeneration of native bush. Though the Brigade made every effort to control major bush fires, they often did not have the manpower or the equipment to deal with fires on the rugged hillsides. Following a public meeting in February 1970 the Wainuiomata Bush force was formed with the agreement of CFO George Holcroft. The constitution of the bush force made it clear that the force was to assist the fire authorities and would only operate when requested by the CFO of the Brigade. After some initial settling in problems and a few meetings to sort out procedure and protocol there began a partnership that continues to serve the valley well. So successful is this partnership that members of the public have not had to be called on for fighting scrub fires since 1971. A far cry from the 1950’s and 60’s when sounding the general alarm was a common enough occurrence for the details of the general alarm to be published in the local newspaper. At first the Force’s equipment was stored at the Homedale Station, but when the main station was transferred to Fitzherbert Road the Force’s equipment went as well.
One of the first notable events in 1980 was the erection of the hose tower. This project had been in the pipeline for a number of years and finally in March the Brigade had its steel tower with electric winch and 2 gantries providing for up to 28 lengths of hose. A siren and floodlights were also installed on top. Some adjustments had to be made as the safety rails proved to be at a height that was not at all safe.
The end of one of the most important eras in the history of the Brigade came with the closure of the Homedale station in October 1988. The first query about the long term viability of Homedale station had been raised in 1980, and though the CFO of the day had said that there was no possibility of it being closed in the foreseeable future, by 1988 the inevitable had to be faced and Homedale was closed. It was not lost however. One Saturday morning the members turned out in force and the old building was dismantled and carted to the station in Fitzherbert Road where it was re erected and now serves as a storage shed and training facility.
Of all the incidents involving vehicles the most outstanding was probably the call on 21st May 1981 when the valley had to deal with the effects of a severe storm. At 0350hrs the CFO was notified of a boat on the rocks at Baring Head. Because of the weather at the time the responding appliance was asked to notify the station of the road conditions. As the appliance progressed down the Coast Road the conditions deteriorated. There were slips and flooding and by the time the appliance had reached Rimutaka Park the road had become impassable to most traffic. When Sub-Officer Patterson arrived on the scene he found not a small fishing vessel but the Pacific Charger firmly aground on the rocks. As the crew were in no danger it was decided to leave any attempt at rescue to daylight. This rescue was carried out without any loss of life. The language barrier proved more of a problem than the rescue, as the predominantly Chinese crew did not speak any of the major dialects.
At the beginning of the 1990’s the Brigade began to look forward to its 50th Jubilee year. Though initially it might have been hoped that all would be plain sailing there were still a few disappointments to face. Like many other Government departments, the Brigade began to feel the effects of Government cut backs. After the blow of losing Homedale Station the Brigade had to face the loss of their third appliance.
On December 5th 1991 443 was used for the last time in training and a week later was responded for the last time to a property fire in Totara Street. When the Brigade assembled for drill on the 16th January 1992 all that remained of 443 was its sign in the show cabinet of the social room.
In June came the fire that the Brigade had most dreaded. At 4am on the morning of June 29 fire ripped through the historic Orongorongo Lodge. The Brigade had attended fires at the Lodge on several occasions but these had been mainly out buildings such as the stables. It had long been feared that if a really major fire had broken out at the Lodge then, because of the distance the Brigade had to travel to reach the scene, there was a real risk of losing the building entirely. Sadly this was to be the case. When the Brigade arrived on the scene the building was blazing virtually from end to end. The Lodge’s swimming pool and reserve water supply were drained and fire fighters were then hampered by the lack of water. A nearby stream was unsuitable for use as sand clogged up the pumps. Another stream 500m away was suitable but the appliances could not reach it and the water had to be relayed using portable pumps. Though unable to save the building (two chimneys were all that were left standing) the Brigade did manage to stop the fire spreading to out buildings and nearby trees. It was not only the loss of the building that made this fire one of the worst encountered by the Brigade but the loss of the contents as well which contained collections of silver, wines and Maori carvings. At the height of the blaze, which was attended in the end by 12 appliances and almost 50 fire fighters, the Brigade had to contend with exploding gas cylinders and walls collapsing.”
Although many theories abounded at the time, the cause of the fire could not be accurately pinpointed because of the extent of the destruction.
If after 50 years one was to ask the members of the Brigade the best and the worst parts of being in the Brigade they would tell you that the worst parts are the dirt, the heat and at times the sheer waste and destruction of deliberately lit fires. The best on the other hand include the tremendous sense of comradeship, the lasting friendships and the sense of a job well done for the community. If asked why they continue to serve most would say its because they enjoy it, or like Don Campbell, the Brigade’s longest serving member, they don’t know when to stop. Hopefully the Brigade will always find people who are motivated and dedicated enough to serve the community in this fashion.