Tinui Rural Fire Force crew Sam Johnston, Piki Paku, Donna Schofield, Nick Balfour, and Richard Laing. PHOTO/EVIE MURRAY

JOHN LAZO-RON and EVIE MURRAY
john.lazo-ron@age.co.nz

It was 2.07pm on a hot Thursday afternoon in Tinui.

Resident and Tinui Rural Fire Force rural controller Donna Schofield was on her farm preparing the sheep for shearing.

Suddenly, her fire and rescue pager started beeping.

In her six years of fire volunteering, Schofield had seen many fires, but her eyes and mouth opened wide when she looked and saw the words, ‘structure fire’ on the pager.

Immediately, she ran off the farm, into the house, got her fire pants on, and was out the door.

Arriving at the Tinui Fire Station on Blackhill Rd within minutes, she was joined by fellow volunteers Richard Laing, Nick Balfour, Sam Johnston, Piki Paku, Mark Shelton, and Geoff Mitchell, who got the same message.

The fire was in nearby Whareama.

The entire Tinui crew, who had six to 20 years of experience among them, had been on their farms or working at the time of the message.

Being the closest crew, they knew they would need to move fast.

“We were really quick, like it was minutes,” Schofield said.

“As soon as we were all at the station, we got the truck out on to the road within four minutes.”

They did not know what to expect as a house fire was rare for this crew, who mainly dealt with vegetation fires. They also knew their timing would be crucial.

“We didn’t know what we were dealing with, but as soon as we got on to Langdale Rd and saw the black smoke, we knew it was a biggie. We knew it was toxic,” Paku said.

The house they were dispatched to was well engulfed by the time they arrived within 15 minutes. Then the wind started to push the flames towards next door Whareama School.

“We couldn’t save the house, so our next thought and plan of attack was ‘save the school’,” Schofield said.

“The school paint was already blistering, so we knew we had to do something.”

Tinui’s truck carries a maximum of 1800 litres of water. That emptied quickly, which caused Balfour to break into the school’s swimming pool area [which was secured] to put their portable pump in and extract the water to tame the flames.

“Once we got the water out of the pool and established, we got in between [the school and property] to keep the flames back. Honestly, it was us getting there quickly and doing that quickly that literally stopped the school from perishing, and that’s what we needed to do for the community,” Balfour said.

Thankfully, Tinui, along with rural fire crews from Riversdale, Castlepoint, and Mataikona, and urban crews from Masterton and Carterton, prevented the fire from reaching the school.

Paku said the school’s saving had a deeper meaning for her as it was the school she attended growing up.

“That was my primary school. I definitely wanted that one saved,” she said.

On the day of the fire, Masterton Fire Station officer Kevin Smith said how thankful he was for Tinui’s fast response to get to the fire and save the school.

Their heroics showcased how vital rural volunteer fire crews were to the community.

The team of seven all had jobs and ran farms but had given up hundreds of hours of their free time to keep the community safe.

In 2020, they dealt with 22 fires and medical and motor vehicle incidents.

When asked what drove them to volunteer in the fire service, all the Tinui crew had the same answer: “To look after the community.”

Schofield said the crew put a lot of emphasis on their training and preparation. It could be dangerous, but it was a price they were all willing to pay for the community.



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