by Chris Tobin
Was the giant extension ladder used by firefighters battling a dramatic 1951 fire in downtown Timaru also used in the Allied landing at Normandy during World War 2?
That intriguing question has long been pondered and will be the focus of one of many stories retold when the Timaru Fire Brigade celebrates its 150th anniversary later this year.
Senior Station Officer Alistair Thornley said it was uncertain whether the 23m-long ladder was used at the landing but it was certainly built for that purpose.
“They built four of them. We got the ladder from the London Fire Brigade when it was shipped to New Zealand after the war.”
The ladder had not been officially commissioned and the Timaru firefighters were still training on it at the time the top storeys of the three-storey CML (Colonial Mutual Life Assurance) building were engulfed in flames in April 1951.
The ladder was a major factor in saving the building, which still stands today.
“They evacuated picture theatres nearby and managed to quench the fire.”
The ladder enabled firefighters to direct water into the centre of the blaze.
The Timaru brigade started officially in April 1870, two years after a disastrous fire destroyed a large portion of downtown Timaru, then comprising mainly wooden buildings.
“In 1868, they had a hook and ladder company,” Mr Thornley said.
“There was no reticulated water, only wells and hand pumps. They would just get a hook, ladder and bucket and pull down buildings.”
The Timaru Borough Council ran the newly formed local brigade with a fire board.
As a result, the first station was based behind the council buildings, then located in George St opposite the Barnard St intersection.
The arrangement was not an ideal one: the brigade had horses on site to pull a Sand & Mason pump and the smell of horse manure often permeated council meetings.
In 1877, new council chambers were built at the council’s current location which included a fire station sited to ensure no more unpleasant horse odours wafted into the chambers.
The next and final move was made in 1914 to the brigade’s present site, on the corner of Latter and Woolcombe Sts, and it was a last goodbye to the horses.
“In 1915, we got a motorised fire truck and a pump to boost the pressure from the mains.”
Since then, the brigade had kept abreast of advances in firefighting technology.
Simplex fire alarms operated from the early 1900s until a Duplex alarm system took over, which grew to 59 in streets around Timaru by the 1950s.
These were fire boxes with a button people could push to alert the station of a fire.
Duplex alarms went out with the spread of telephones in businesses and homes.
Fire appliances had gone from horse-drawn hose reels to old Dennis machines with motorised pumps and Ford Model Ts, to Bedford TKs and, by the 1990s, a Scania rescue truck. In 2010, a fully equipped command unit was introduced.
Firefighter numbers had grown from the days of volunteers and a few permanent staff with auxiliaries to 39 full-time operational firefighters as well as other fire safety staff , volunteer support and administration staff.
The service had gone from being run by the local council to under national control.
Three years ago, the rural fire service was remodelled and became Fire and Emergency New Zealand; Timaru was now headquarters for all brigades between the Waitaki and Rakaia Rivers
The role of a firefighter had also changed.
Attending traffic accidents, providing civil defence search and rescue support, assisting St John with medical callouts and running fire education programmes were all part and parcel of a firefighter’s lot.
“It’s why we’re called fire and emergency. We’re the fastest group of people they can call out.”
The biggest advance the brigade had experienced, Mr Thornley said, had been the growth in domestic fire alarms.
“It’s cut our fires a lot. Every time there’s a death, 90% of the time it’s because people don’t have an alarm or it doesn’t work.
“Commercial alarms now give us early warnings.
“We’ve gone from a reactive service to a proactive service.”
The Timaru Fire Brigade has fought many fires over the years. Staff were deployed to the Christchurch earthquakes and have been sent to fires around the country as well as to the United States, Canada and Australia.
Memorable local callouts have included:
- The CML building fire in 1951.
- When a lucerne silo at the port blew its top in 1971.
- The “big wind” of August 1975, when 160kmh nor’westers caused havoc.
- The major flood of March 1986.
- The Timaru Main School fire of 1989.
- The Seaview Hotel blaze in 1993 (two lives lost).
- The Opuha Dam flood of 1997
- The Dong Won 701 fire in Timaru harbour in 2019.
An exhibition marking 150 years of the Timaru Fire Brigade will be opened at the South Canterbury Museum in Timaru at 5.30pm on Friday, July 24.
A weekend of celebrations is planned for September 25 to 28. It will include a parade through Stafford St starting at 1pm on Saturday, September 26.