If the 150-year history of the Invercargill Fire Brigade has taught us anything, it's that fire can be more predictable than people. Michael Fallow looks back through a smoky haze at the history, being celebrated this weekend, of an invaluable service.
Right from the get-go, Invercargill was a combustible town. In the absence of handy stone, it was a collection of rough wooden constructions thrown together by people who then wanted to warm them with fires.
And there was nothing so impertinent as a Building Act to tell them what they could and couldn't do.
This, lamented The Invercargill Times, had permitted "the erection of houses in dangerous proximity to premises of highly inflammable material". Perhaps the editor, sitting in his office, had a nearby kerosene store in mind when he wrote that.
Before long Invercargill would become known as the City of Blazes - which sounded flasher than the more strictly accurate Little Town of Blazes would have.
The unhappy fire record confounded the early ambitions of an insurance company which in 1862 brought down the six-year-old town's first fire engine. Not that there was a brigade to use it. But how hard could that little detail be?
A brigade was cobbled together, though the press was soon-enough wringing its hands about the serious difficulties not just in recruiting people willing to donate their time to perform dangerous duties, but also collecting the necessary funds from the public.
Whereupon the Times, having thundered away on the subject, was itself razed in a large 1864 Tay St fire in which two women perished within the nearby Excelsior Hotel.
The Times report (printed courtesy of the rival News press) really rubbed people's noses in the details. Fire had "altered the bodies from any semblance of the human form" leaving only "two masses of charcoal-like substance in shape something like human bodies".
Nice. But such unflinching descriptions empowered the newspaper, having risen from the ashes, to invoke the community's "sacred duty" of maintaining a fully functioning fire brigade.
Trouble was, however sanctified a brigade might be, it had to depend on subscriptions from insurance companies and the public - and this in a town that was soon emphatically in the economic doldrums Before long, the brigade, although still technically existing, had "fallen into a mesmeric slumber".
The town council accepted responsibility for the brigade, which promptly gave a pretty good indication of its level of confidence in civic administration.
Never to mind - the council decided to reorganise the brigade in accordance with its own sense of discipline, and considered a motion that all workmen it employed would by golly be required to become firemen too. After hot debate it was toned down to "requested".
The Times weighed in, suggesting that the youth of the town should be given the same sort of choice it had heard about from the United States. Young men would be required to serve either in the local fire brigade or the local militia. And if that plan wasn't adopted, the paper suggested, a municipal tax seemed the only alternative.
Apparently that last bit was crazy talk. Instead there were unedifying disputes between the council and insurers about who should stump up with financial support first.
It was a maddening time for the brigade members, who disbanded and reformed several times throughout the 1870s, during which they struggled with inadequate water supplies, near-impassable streets and the lack of an effective alarm system.
The bell of First Church was also the alarm bell, so the sound could signify a heavenly summons or a hellish one. Adding to the confusion, the railway station installed a soundalike bell.
Then came the great beer controversy of 1879. It had long struck the citizenry as only fair that after a callout the firemen, and those who might have assisted them, should be treated with refreshments, including beer. Yes - beer!
After a March fire, former brigade captain J Kingsland, by then a town council member, suggested the quantity of liquor consumed had been enormous. Given that 17 of the 24 registered firemen were teetotallers and yet somehow "156 liquors" had been consumed, he concluded most of it had been drunk by loafers.
Not everyone thanked him for his comments. Under the pen-name "Old Fireman", a letter writer retorted that "It is rather too hot for those who work hard on such occasions to be called loafers while those who stand with their hands in their pockets can console themselves with being gentlemen . . . and that [distinction being] on the authority of a city councillor".
The brigade didn't have a horse to haul its engine so the council agreed to pay a guinea to the first person who reported with a harnessed horse after the alarm sounded. The prize was doubled if it was at night. It was an offer good enough to cause keen competition.
A glut of fires in 1884, including one on the corner of Conon and Tay streets that claimed a theatre, hotel and an old Catholic schoolhouse, helped earn the town what the press called "an evil notoriety" due particularly to the suspicion of "incendiarism".
Still, the following years, the first really efficient firefighting machine arrived, branded Merryweather, and people enjoyed its public trial, which entailed waterblasting pigeons and sparrows out of the nooks of the Supreme Court building.
By 1888, the waterworks had opened, providing at last a halfway decent water supply rather than wells, though it did prompt one pinchpenny councillor to suggest it might now be possible to do without a brigade altogether.
Come 1900, the fire station, on the site where the Civic Theatre now stands, burned down. Embarrassing. All the moreso because the fire was caused by explosions in a station room where fireworks were being made for a display to raise patriotic funds for the Boer War.
Still, while firemen "working like giants" saved almost all the flaming station's equipment, the crowd of about 2000 to 3000 people marvelled as the two-storeyed building went up in a conflagration much more spectacular than any darned fireworks show.
The new station was built in Esk St, where the civic administration building now stands, though by 1923, when a poll of ratepayers approved the formation of a fire board, it was held to be sorely inadequate.
Among the complaints was that the men could seldom have a hot bath on returning from a fire, unless, as sometimes happened in defiance of good hygiene, three or four of them got into the same water. (We're guessing this meant one after the other, rather than anything more chummy, though strictly speaking the record doesn't spell that out.)
The new station opened, on a different Esk St site, in 1926.
Public education back then often amounted (as it still so often does) to statements of what would seem to be the bleeding obvious. Such as the cautionary note struck by Superintendent F Simpson that began: "The danger of using petrol in the home for cleaning purposes in proximity to an open flame is still vague in the minds of the majority of the public . . ."
By the 1940s, with Branxholme offering a mains water supply, the city had earned a comparatively quiet time, though 1953 brought a monstrous fire at J E Watson and Co in Tay St, fanned by a gale.
The building never really stood a chance but as so often happened in this town, the brigade's triumph was in containing the fire in the building in which is started, in this case saving a seriously imperilled block.
But it was not solely about fires.
Among the most sorrowful days in the brigade's history was the 1959 tragedy when three city council workers were overcome working in an artesian bore in Queens Park, about 12m below ground.
Trying to rescue them, brigade member Thomas McCambridge also collapsed. A later analysis of the air at the bottom of the shaft revealed less than 0.5 per cent oxygen. McCambridge's colleagues Wallace Butler, Donald Clode, David Cleary and John Valentine were later honoured with Royal Humane Society awards for their bravery in bringing the men out, though it was too late to save them.
Throughout the 1960s, maintaining staff numbers was a problem; among the less attractive aspects of service conditions was a roster system that was anything but family-friendly.
Much changed come 1972, when a new national award mightily increased the number of staff from 35 to 64.
The arrival of "all these whippersnappers" Gordon Rodgers suggests, marked a transition from what had been a complete way of life, to something more recognisable as a job, albeit still a professional, highly skilled one. More complex procedures, too, thanks to legislative changes requiring much more deskwork. And the focus between callouts broadened as well.
"It used to be training, training, training . . . now there's much more about educating the public.'
The climate of discipline in all things back then extended to the disciplines of firehouse dusting, Bob Crossan recalls. Little discs saying "return to duty officer" were tucked away in nooks and crannies. If you didn't return them, you hadn't found them and clearly hadn't done a thorough job.
They polished just about everything. Including their gumboots.
Graeme Thomson remembers the early-70s helmets less than fondly. They were plastic and not fabulously heat resistant.
"You'd go to a fire and they'd be all different shapes when you came out, depending on what size your head was."
You know that old joke about why firemen wear braces? These guys weren't necessarily supplied with pairs of them. It could be just one, which you had to loop around your neck to clip it from one side of your leggings to the other. This worked okay while a fireman was standing up. When he bent over, things tended to head south. Bearing in mind that he may have sprung straight from bed into his uniform "there were some pretty fantastic sights" .
The Esk St station, of course, had the traditional fire poles, quicker than any lift or stairs.
One of the tricks, Peter Thwaites says, was climbing up them. Not that easy, but worth the challenge when you were "young and stupid".
As callouts to motor accidents increased, the public stepped up to help supply equipment, such as Rotary- presented Vetter air bags, capable of lifting nearly 3 tonnes, and the famous "jaws of life", courtesy of golf tournament proceeds. Illustrative advertisements for the jaws showed a single rescuer, arms outstretched, wielding them like hedge clippers. Given their actual weight, he'd have had to be Superman.
When the Floorwool Products factory in Basstian St went up in 1878, the firefighters who inhaled the chemical fumes suffered headaches and nausea afterwards.
Firefighting isn't always hot work. At the Matheson International fire at Kennington in 1980, amid a biting frost, some of the crew found icicles forming on their helmets.
The Broad Small store fire in Dee St in 1983, on the site the public library now stands, was the most severe for 30 years, with nine appliances battling away. Yet, as Doug Stronach recalls, when first appliance arrived, nothing looked immediately amiss.
"We went down along Dee, looked at the front of the building and everything looked normal. Then went around the back [Leven St] and everything looked normal . . ."
He opened up an old Cyclone gate down the side alley and it was then that a colleague cried out: "Doug - it's going like the clappers down the side" At which flames burst through.
The venerable store was full of combustible contents and, a former picture theatre, also had false ceilings. It burnt fiercely, stretching into the top of its northern neighbour J T Sharp and Co. Fully three days later, crews were still there.
During the 1984 Invercargill floods the brigade was run ragged. No service contributed more man-hours. In the 12 days from January 26 it answered 693 calls - that would usually be six months' work.
It was a mobilisation of manpower and equipment unprecedented for a single emergency in the city, and the physical and mental strain on the crews was there to be seen, especially on, the seven whose own homes had been flooded, and six others affected to lesser degree.
By any measure, 1986 was a dispiriting year, with arsonists at work to the extent that 33 fires - one in 12 - was found to be deliberately lit.
Also memorable from that year was an otherwise smaller-scale fire at Martins' Toys and Hobbies shop, which firefighters entered and to find a tiny, plaintive voice calling to them through the smoke. Turns out it was a doll.
If there's one Times photo veteran firefighters recall with less than overbrimming admiration, it was one taken at the airport, when the rescue crew there invited firefighters from a visiting appliance to an impromptu game of volleyball.
As the hierarchy was quick to point out, impression of men with nothing better to do wasn't the image the service wanted to project.
But it does seem that what mattered to the public was how their firefighters performed when the chips were down.
This was underlined by the emphatic vote of support to the citizens-initiated referendum in late 1995, after a period of nationwide industrial conflict, which asked "Should the number of professional firefighters employed fulltime in the New Zealand Fire Service be reduced below the number employed on January 1" that year.
Though the nationwide response wasn't huge, the response from those who did reply was emphatic. And in Invercargill 92 per cent voted no.
In 1996, the national service, with the backing of the National Government, tried to sack all firefighters in an attempt to force them onto an individual contract. Rodgers still has a commemorative T-shirt from that time. "It's one claim we can make. We've been sacked and refused to leave."
The age of Invercargill's housing stock and businesses continues to be an issue for the brigade, and in 2002 it was joined with the Times for a substantial "Where There's Smoke" campaign, which included the distribution of free smoke alarms to city homes.
For all that has changed throughout the decades, firefighters still attest that there's still a great emphasis on, as Rodgers says, "putting the wet cold stuff on the hot stuff".
And there is, now, a Fire Museum, opposite the Jed St station. A few of the participants at this weekend's 150th celebrations reckon they belong there.
- © Fairfax NZ News