Sun, Jun 9, 2024 6:00 AM

Fire chief passes the torch


Elise Vollweiler

A fire that destroyed the home of his father also ignited the spark for Ngatimoti’s Graham Durrant to join the first configuration of the area’s rural fire force.

Graham has been a part of the Ngatimoti Volunteer Rural Fire Force since its formation in 1985, with the last 20 years as Controller/Chief Fire Officer (CFO).

He stepped down from the role last month, passing the mantle to Luka Droppers in a ceremony at the Ngatimoti community rooms, adjacent to the fire station.

Graham, a long-standing real estate agent, has seen a great many changes to the force in the four decades that he has been involved.

The emergency phone tree, managed by the wives of the traditionally male first attenders, has long been replaced by an electronic tracking and alert system, “along with a good mix of male and female volunteers,” he says.

The first fire truck, a landrover nicknamed Little Flick, held 40 gallons of water and “rolled around like a duck on the road”, Graham remembers wryly.  The long-nosed International pump truck that replaced it had no power steering and a driver’s seat like a trampoline.

“Our latest FENZ double-cab pump truck, capable of carrying six crew, is a far cry from that,” he says.

The older trucks had been sourced on a limited budget, funded back then by the Tasman District Council and forestry companies. Resources grew in 2018 with the “stand up” or formation of Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) which amalgamated 38 rural fire districts and territorial authorities, including Ngatimoti.

Graham Durrant is accustomed to receiving emergency alerts during his working day after 39 years on the Ngatimoti Volunteer Rural Fire Force. Photo: Supplied.

Graham is proud to have been part of a team that has saved many lives, including at the scene of many severe motor vehicle accidents. He also vividly remembers the occasion when his team attended a home birth and managed to resuscitate the newborn, who was not breathing at birth. They then successfully guided the rescue helicopter through a tricky night landing amongst trees and power lines in a tight valley situation, so that the infant and mother could be whisked away to hospital.

One of the most harrowing incidents of his tenure was trying to revive one of the team’s own volunteers, who had suffered an accident on a local farm.

Despite the best efforts of the local fire brigades as well as St John ambulance staff, the man did not survive, and Graham calls this the “absolute hardest moment for myself and our team”.

Up until the 2019 Pigeon Valley fires, the local rural fire teams - including Graham’s own Ngatimoti Rural Fire and Emergency team - had a “very enviable record” of containing bush and scrub fires before they could spread beyond a few hectares – a testament to the volunteers and the principal rural fire officers such as Ian Reade, as well as the regional controllers, Graham says.

It took two full months for the Pigeon Valley fire’s classification to change from “state of emergency” to “controlled”, and the Ngatimoti force, along with many others, volunteered for many days and nights on end to help contain the huge blaze.

Former chief fire controller Graham Durrant, left, together with FENZ district manager Grant Haywood, pin the ranked epaulets on the Ngatimoti force’s new CFO Luka Droppers. Photo: Supplied.

Graham says that after two decades as CFO, he felt that it was time to step down and allow for fresh ideas and tech-savvy youth to come to the fore.

“I felt really comfortable that we had very capable younger and middle-aged people that have come through our system over the years,” he says.

“I am, however, intending to still be very much involved going forward as just one of the team, and to assist where and if I can in the future.”

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