Makarora Rural Fire Force's departing fire chief Chris
Wilson is not one to blow his own trumpet. But his soon-to-be
successor Heather Pennycook - who has served alongside him at
many of Makarora's emergency call-outs in recent years -
credits him with transforming the voluntary group from its
humble, poorly-equipped beginnings, into one of the
best-resourced rural fire forces in the South Island. The pair
spoke to Lucy Ibbotson about the changing of the guard and the
challenges of maintaining a voluntary organisation in a tiny,
Heather Pennycook, with current chief Chris Wilson, will
take over as fire chief for the Makarora Rural Fire Force
this month when Mr Wilson moves to Oamaru after two
decades' volunteering for the force. Photo by Lucy
The emergency response team in Makarora had little more than
a stretcher, a first aid kit, some accident signs and a few
tools when Chris Wilson (41) joined the ranks in the early
1990s, after moving to the area from Dunedin to work for the
Department of Conservation.
Back then, when the siren sounded, the valley's volunteers
would do a quick ring around, then ''just chuck it
[equipment] on the back of a ute or something and away we'd
go'', Mr Wilson explains.
A serious fatal collision between a campervan and a ute
marked the turning point for the group to start improving its
resources. An emergency trailer was bought, then with support
from Queenstown Lakes District Council, the group became an
officially recognised rural fire force (MRFF) and acquired a
jeep for fire-fighting purposes.
''Everything snowballed from there, really.''
When Mr Wilson became fire chief nine years ago, his team
raised funds for a support van. A new fire engine bought by
the council arrived shortly after, before a second engine -
surplus to requirements at Colac Bay, in Southland - joined
The absence of cellphone coverage in the area was overcome by
a New Zealand Fire Service pager system and, today, a new
satellite phone gives extra capability.
An annual $5000 council grant covers running costs and
training, while the remaining finances needed come from
The force is now resourced to a point where it can ''make
some impact'' in emergency situations, a far cry from the
days when volunteers attending fires relied solely on a Wajax
pump on a trailer.
Heather Pennycook says National Rural Fire Authority auditors
routinely hold MRFF up as a glowing example for others to
''That's amazing for a small place in the middle of nowhere
... and that's because Chris has poured his heart into it.''
Mr Wilson's role as Makarora's Doc field centre supervisor
was scrapped in the department's recent restructuring, which
has played a big part in his decision to move to Oamaru this
month with his wife, Emily Anderson, and their two children,
to start a new job in construction.
''I'm going to miss living here, there's no doubt about it,
because I've spent half my life here and half my life doing
this sort of stuff, but I think change is good for me.''
He has been ''subconsciously'' training up fellow volunteer
Ms Pennycook (46) to replace him as fire chief, knowing the
day would eventually come when it was time to leave the
MRFF will remain ''in good hands'', he says, acknowledging
the experience and skills Ms Pennycook will bring to the fire
Mr Wilson, and his successor, Ms Pennycook, hone their
skills during a mock vehicle accident training exercise
last month. Photos supplied.
The pair, also both members of LandSAR Wanaka, agree
attracting volunteers is the primary challenge in Makarora,
where there is a permanent population of just 70-90 people and
a high turnover of short-term residents.
Ms Pennycook joined MRFF in 2009 when she returned to
Makarora - where she grew up. She remembers Chris as a
''young fella'' when he first arrived in what was a very
different community from today.
''Back then, almost all of the valley residents were long
term or permanents who owned land and businesses here,'' she
''Now almost all the farm land is owned by overseas people
and a lot of our residents work on the farms or at the
tourist centre, so are temporary or seasonal, which makes it
a lot harder to find volunteers who are willing to commit
their time and energy to training and callouts.''
Volunteer numbers average between 15 and 18, but the figure
fluctuates considerably, and continual training is required
to get new arrivals up to speed and to improve the skills of
All the volunteers have a minimum of basic fire safety and
first aid, although some have far more experience, including
Mr Wilson, whose fire and emergency training from Doc has
also served him well in his fire chief role.
The Makarora force is usually the first response for road
accidents, medical emergencies, fires, and search and rescue
operations within an area spanning from The Neck to just
south of Haast. Other emergency services are up to an hour
and a-half away.
''We're finding now we're using the rescue helicopter a lot
just because it's the easiest way to get people evacuated to
hospital in a short time ... rather than waiting for hours
and hours for an ambulance to turn up,'' Mr Wilson said.
The volunteers attend an average of 15-20 callouts a year,
covering a broad spectrum of emergencies.
''A lot of the stuff that we go to here is just totally
different from other places because it's just so remote.''
Among the most memorable callouts during Mr Wilson's tenure
was a bus crash in the Haast Pass involving multiple
injuries, and the blaze which destroyed the Makarora Doc
office, right next door to the fire shed.
''I got a page that said 'Makarora fire station on fire'.''
Also unforgettable, was the time a horse got its legs stuck
in a cattle stop on the Haast Pass in the middle of the
night, during a thunderstorm no less, requiring the use of a
gas cutter to free the animal.
''That was probably one of the more bizarre ones.''
The camaraderie between volunteers who represent a
cross-section of the community has been the biggest
motivation behind Mr Wilson's long service.
''And if I was out here in Makarora and something went wrong
with me, you'd hope that someone would come to your aid ...
that's probably the other reason I do it.''
Ms Pennycook - who lives with her two children on a Makarora
farm and works part-time in Wanaka - says Mr Wilson's
departure will leave ''a huge hole'' in the community and
''But we have to learn to stand on our own two feet.''
Her training during the past four years would stand her in
good stead, she said.
''I'm not a girly girl and I have a chain saw and I do a bit
of mechanical stuff.
''And I am confident that the locals here have any skills
that I lack and that together we can work as a team to take
MRFF into the future, in a way that Chris would be proud