History of Lake Okareka Fire Force
The summer of 1983 was long and hot, with the usual breeze coming up around 4pm just like summers are supposed to be. The store was doing a roaring trade in ice creams and ice blocks, particularly on that Saturday. There had been the usual number of very small scrub fires, extinguished as always by the nearest residents, with garden hoses, shovels and whatever else came to hand.
A group of local residents were at the store when someone came in and commented on the great plume of smoke coming from halfway along the Acacia peninsula. We looked and it was definitely not a scrub fire. Luckily, Sheldon Drummond from NZ Forest Service had the NZFS smoke chaser at home that weekend. Leaving the store to call 111, we jumped into his truck and, with as many people as possible, headed off to the fire. A house was well ablaze and the surrounding vegetation was starting to burn as well.
The owner of the house was one in our group, and was now attending a major fire at his own property! With what little equipment we had, we managed to contain the fire to the section until the Fire Service arrived from town. Unfortunately, the house was completely destroyed. The Fire Service told us that if it wasn’t for our quick actions, the whole peninsula might have burnt, due to the wind direction and the very dry conditions.
A number of residents then decided Okareka needed a volunteer fire brigade and so the Lake Okareka Rural Fire Force began. We begged, borrowed or stole (well, not quite literally) equipment, including a trailer donated by a local resident, use of a resident’s spare garage (which was on the corner of Benn Road/Wattle Grove), and a 1951 Wajax portable pump (gifted from the Forest Service, which we still own and which still works).
Over time, we negotiated the use of a piece of land from Rotorua District Council and built the fire station, all done with volunteer labour from the Okareka community. We fund-raised locally for the project which was completed in 1985 and much to our delight, the Forest Service presented us with a 1969 International 4WD Fire Truck, just in time for the opening ceremony, which was carried out by the then Mayor of Rotorua, John Keaney. Also in attendance were West Rotoiti Rural Fire and Tarawera Rural Fire, both of whom were fledgling brigades like us. Our patron, the sitting MP for the area, Ian McLean was also present. His enthusiasm for rural fire may have slightly dampened because when he returned home to Rotoiti, he discovered that his house had been on fire, whilst his local brigade was celebrating with us!
At this time, we instigated the 3-Lakes Pump Competitions, which I am sure some of you will remember, and have taken part in. The competitions allowed us all to hone our skills with fire fighting equipment and also to socialise with the other brigades. I am pleased to say that Okareka always went home with at least one trophy. As well as men’s teams, we had junior teams and ladies teams, and the competition between all became quite heated at times.
In the early 1990’s, reticulated water came to Okareka. This meant that, to take advantage of this system, we needed to upgrade our equipment. To that end, we fund-raised again and purchased a Japanese import Toyota Landcruiser 4WD Fire Truck. This was basically a big pump on wheels. When I say basic, I mean basic!
The Toyota had no doors, no roof, no heater and the seats were not adjustable. So, if you were standard Japanese size it was great. For your average Kiwi, let’s say it was a tad of a tight fit. In spite of that, it did us proud in the time we had it.
The International could not work with a reticulated water supply, so it was retired to Bert Watchorn’s Transport Museum at Awakeri and we obtained a Ford D600 from New Zealand Fire Service. With the advent of the Ford came formal registration with the National Rural Fire Authority. Our registered number is 110, meaning that we were the 10th brigade to be formally registered, which we are quite proud of, being considered as having met the standard so early on in the system.
Also, at this time, there was a change to the national organisation of Rural Fire, with the result that we now came under the wing of the Rotorua District Council as the Territorial Rural Fire Authority. I am sure a number of you will remember the many public meetings and discussions held before this situation was formalised to everyone’s satisfaction.
We continue with that arrangement to this day.
New Zealand Fire Service offered us a Bedford 4WD Fire Truck, fitted with a foam fire suppressant system, in the late 1990’s. Since we were in the process of replacing the Toyota, the Bedford was very soon on station and was used extensively, both locally and on behalf of NZFS when they could not gain access to rural fires with their own truck. During this period, we entered into an informal training arrangement with NZFS, which means that we have “buddied up”with Blue Watch from NZFS Rotorua and train in town with them around 13 times a year. This continues to the present day and has proven most useful to both parties.
Through our relationship with the Rotorua District Council, we undertake training (to NZQA standards) on a regular basis and have recently been given the opportunity to put this into practice with agencies locally, nationally, and possibly internationally.
The old Ford was getting a bit sad by the early 2000’s, so we negotiated with NZFS and obtained the 1979 Dodge RG15 Fire Truck which we have today as a replacement. At the same time, the Bedford was redeployed elsewhere. We had also identified the need for a dedicated fire tanker in the area as a result of attending a number of fire where there was no adequate water supply (It should be known that the nearest fire tanker was at Te Puke, then Taupo should that one is busy).
We again embarked on a fund-raising campaign and just before Christmas 2008, and put Lake 6575 on station, a 14000 litre dedicated rural fire tanker. As if to confirm our thoughts, the tanker has been called out 70 times, going as far as Taupo, Ngatira, Galatea, Whakamaru, Kaharoa and not to forget our neighbours Tarawera and Rotoiti.
2008 would also be the year that the Lake Okareka Fire Force won the Emergency Management Qualification (EMQUAL) Excellence in Training Award. The presentation was on the 15th June 2009, at the Rotorua District Council Chambers, which coincided with the beginning of the National Volunteer Awareness Week. The award recognised the time we had taken from our jobs and interruptions to personal time, to participate in training and emergency incidents.
After 25 years of service in 2009, Dave Field one of the founding volunteer fire fighters and previous Chief Rural Fire Officer (CRFO), who watched over the Lake Okareka community. Hung up his helmet and headed overseas to be closer to his family in Britain. Dave stood down from the chief's position in 2003 when he thought it was time for a younger person, current CRFO Philip Muldoon to take over the role. Before leaving, Dave said the comradeship of the volunteers would be something he would miss, and was satisfied he was leaving the force in safe and capable hands.
It was Phil, who in late 2008 signed up to the National Rural Fire Authority’s – Rural Fire Response Team, which was previously known as the Seasonal Fire Fighters. Phil was nominated by the Rotorua District Council Rural Fire Authority as a crew leader for deployment around the country and internationally at short notice for large rural fires. It would be in February 2010, that Phil and Lake Okareka firefighters Ray Doyle and Kierin Oppatt attend their first deployment to Kaimaumau in Northland. The fire was started by an unknown person in the afternoon of the 10th February 2010. The fire burnt 125 hectares of vegetation, mainly on private land including 27 ha of Public Conservation Estate, and cost $1.38 million to extinguish. They would then be called upon to Leithfield Beach, 40km northeast of Christchurch. Fire broke out on the 22nd December and quickly spread to a neighbouring pine plantation, burning approximately 60 ha. About 50 firefighters were brought in from Marlborough, Northland and Rotorua. Phil, Ray and Kierin would work 12 hour days on the fire ground over Christmas, until they were sent home on the 27th five days later.
The Okareka Fire Force would then become movie stars in 2010, in the television series “Just a Job”. The programme highlights the benefits that young people can gain from participating in volunteer organisations, and how this can influence career choices by providing exposure to different situations, skill sets and even formal training. Thanks to all involved in the production over two memorable days. Kierin and Jesse Oppatt apparently have signed posters of themselves available for a small charge – better be in quick before the Hollywood offers come rolling in!
In 2011, the New Zealand Fire Service Commission took a look at how the Lake Okareka Fire Force operates. The delegates were impressed with our membership numbers and, particularly, the number of young people as well as female members involved in the organisation. Their visit also resulted in the old tar-sealed driveway being replaced with a larger concrete driveway, prior to their arrival.
Finally after 12 years, the Lake Okareka Force would see the last day of the 1979 Dodge RG15. The 33 year old appliance was far beyond repair and the committee undertook fundraising efforts to purchase an Isuzu FTS800 Type 34 Fire Truck. We would have temporary use of a 1990 Hino FD1017 from the NZFS National Training Centre. While the Isuzu cab from Shorland Holden in Rotorua was retrofitted by Fraser Fire & Rescue in Wellington, which had a contract for 100 similar appliances for the Country Fire Authority in Australia. Grants were received from the National Rural Fire Authority, Rotorua District Council, First Sovereign Trust, Infinity Foundation, NZ Community Trust, Pub Charities, The Southern Trust, Youthtown Incorporated, Rotorua Lake Community Board, Rotorua Energy Charitable Trust and Bay Trust. The Lake Okareka Fire Force Inc. contributed $20,000.00 and the project would ultimately cost $390,000.00 and take just under 11 months from start to finish. We see this appliance being an exceptional asset to the Okareka Community and Rotorua District for many decades to come.
In our 34 years of existence, we have attended a wide variety of incidents from scrub and house fires, to motor vehicle accidents through to search and rescue, flooding, slips, fallen trees and ambulance assists (we carry oxygen and an automated external defibrillator (AED) on the fire truck. No cats stuck in trees but, we have had a dog stuck on a roof and a cat stuck down a drain. The Lake Okareka Rural Fire Force meets every Wednesday night at 7:30 pm at the local fire station for training.
We are fiercely proud that in 34 years, we have never missed a callout, and we would like to thank our volunteers that have offered their time to respond to emergencies and those who continue to do so today.