All fired up

By Melissa Nightingale

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The public may never know what words Whanganui's firefighters uttered on February 8, 1994 as they turned a corner to behold what was arguably the largest modern-day fire the city has ever seen.

"That was absolutely horrendous," operational support senior station officer Bryan Barkla said of the infamous fire that started in a drapery on Ridgway St and spread to the tarseal on the road and buildings on the opposite side of the street.

It took more than 65 firefighters to battle the blaze, and six heritage buildings were burned to the ground.

The small, grassy park area on Ridgway St today was established on the site of where the fire started.

"None of us had ever seen a fire that had developed to that stage when we arrived . . . this came so close to jumping the street and having two fires on either side of the street."

While some buildings on the other side did catch fire, the crews managed to keep the situation from turning into two full-blown fires across from each other.

The inevitable curses firefighters would have let slip when they first caught sight of the fire is something that didn't make it into a book written by Mr Barkla to commemorate Whanganui Fire Brigade's 150th year.

"Unfortunately for the brigade there's a lot of stories that you can't put in a book," he said.

"They're things that the general public don't need to know about, but will get talked about the mess room table."

Mr Barkla is the unofficial brigade historian, having taken on the task of compiling the history of the brigade ahead of the jubilee celebrations.

His book - Wanganui Fire Brigade 150 Years of Service - lists everything from major fires and rescues to the evolution of firefighter helmets.

"Pretty much it's a history of this brigade since 1866," Mr Barkla said.

The Ridgway St fire was before fire chief Bernie Rush's time in Whanganui, but he's seen his fair share of significant events, most recent being last year's flooding.

The June floods would have brought back memories for Mr Rush, who joined the brigade in 1998, two weeks before a 50-year flood hit.

"Two weeks later we had another 50-year flood," he said.

As well Mr Rush remembers the Palm Lounge fire near Queen's Park, which also happened soon after he started in Whanganui.

He had spent time campaigning for a fire truck with a ladder to be brought to Whanganui.

"That's what saved us when we had the Palm Lounge fire."

Only he and fellow firefighter Jes Sorenson knew how to operate the elevating ladder, which could be directed remotely.

"Between the two of us we blasted the hell out of that fire," he said.

Bryan Barkla (left) and Bernie Rush show the difference between the current helmets and the brass ones.
Bryan Barkla (left) and Bernie Rush show the difference between the current helmets and the brass ones.


The Whanganui brigade is "steeped in history.

Whanganui, which was once one of the biggest cities in New Zealand, was the first in the country to get a self-propelled [steam powered] fire truck, a welcome addition for firefighters who had to pull hose reels manually on "great big wheels" to a fire.

"In the early days the fire brigade was going to all resign because they were finding pulling hand carts to the jobs and using hand pumps was too tiring, and they were having to grab members of the public to help keep the pump going," Mr Rush said.

Mr Barkla's book details many major fires and incidents in the brigade's time, including a large number of hotel fires over the years.

"Whanganui wasn't a very good place for hotels," Mr Rush said.

Events in the book included a fatal sulphur accident in 1937, when sulphur in an elevator shaft at Kempthorne Prosser in Brunswick Rd ignited.

Men working in the shaft were badly burned, with one person dying en route to the hospital.

Firefighters needed respirators, and one firefighter inhaled sulphur fumes during the incident.

Another rescue in 1964 happened after 4-year-old Robin Loomes fell down a 3.5m shaft his father had dug to try to get water. The fire chief at the time, Matt Morton, and his crew decided to dig a trench up to the shaft. When it was deep enough Mr Morton reached the boy, who was buried up to his neck. As he supported the child, the crew widened the trench.

"At times only Robin's golden hair could be seen as the sand fell in," the book said.

Two hours and five tons of sand later, the boy was free from the hole.

A "horrific accident" in 1980 was also detailed in the book, describing the day a Mobil tanker carrying 14,000 litres of xylene chemical hit a bank, overturned, and crushed a car containing three people.

The accident happened on SH3 near Kai Iwi, and one woman was killed.

Seven thousand litres of the chemical spilled into a nearby creek.

In 1982 the brigade was called to help out after 22 year old Neil Roberts walked up to the entrance of government computer centre Wairere House with a 3-4kg bag of gelignite and a 6 volt battery and set off an explosion, in which he was killed.

"Two security guards saw him approach with a carry bag over his shoulder and they reached for the intercom to ask what he wanted," the book said. "At that point Neil Roberts bent over- they didn't see what he did but what followed was a tremendous flash and explosion that could be heard for kilometres and buildings were rocked up to 400m away."

The brigade was in charge of putting tarpaulins over the damaged foyer of the building and helping to divert traffic.

Another fire mentioned was the 2004 blaze at Q West, which destroyed a 20m luxury $3.2 million catamaran, which was only days away from completion.

There was also a description of an incident at Tasman Tanning's Tod Street factory, where sulphuric acid was mixed in the wrong processor at the plant on November 2012, causing a hydrogen sulphide cloud.

Firefighters pulled two unconscious men from the building. About 19 other people were also taken to Whanganui Hospital for observation.

The incident was one of the first times that the brigade's Hazmat/command vehicle had been used.

Now, 150 years on from when they began, Mr Rush believes Whanganui's brigade has got something special.

"I'm just so proud to be part of this organisation," he said.

"They work horrendous hours at times.

"It's really challenging to get them to go home and take a rest. They're so dedicated they'll just keep working until they drop. I'm so proud of the people I work with . . . they're keeping me young."

- Wanganui Chronicle

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