As mother-of-five Te Wairua Smith pulled up to a crash scene kitted out in her firefighter's uniform, she recognised the wrecked car. It was a maroon Ford she'd seen countless times. It belonged to her little brother Paehu Candy and he was trapped inside.
"As soon as we got there, I knew it was my brother's car and told my chief, who went and checked," recalls Nothland's Kawakawa Fire Brigade volunteer. Te Wairua, 30, was told her injured sibling, then 20, probably wouldn't survive.
That evening three years ago is still raw for Te Wairua, whose husband Eli, 30, is also a volunteer firefighter. "Finding your brother at the scene – that's not something you wish on anyone," she says. "It's one thing being an accident or death, but it's a whole different level when it's your family."
Te Wairua was released from her night's volunteer duties to go with Paehu to Whangarei Hospital by ambulance, before they flew to Auckland City Hospital. Miraculously, the young man survived.
"The doctors believe maybe it's because I was there, like he had something to fight for," recalls Te Wairua, whose brother is now in a wheelchair and paralysed from the chest down.
"I'm grateful that he wasn't alone. Parts of the job are hard, but the pros outweigh the cons."
It was another car crash – again involving family – that led Te Wairua to start volunteering five years ago.
"I joined after my husband's brother died in a car accident," she says.
Her brother-in-law Kaine Smith was 35 when he was killed by a driver who overtook a car on a bend.
"After that, I went along to one of the training nights to get an idea of what volunteer firefighters do," tells Te Wairua. "I met with the chief, filled out police vetting forms and did a medical test."
Te Wairua was accepted and admits that initially, she wasn't aware how diverse the job is.
"You don't just fight fires, in fact, that's one of the least common call-outs we get," she explains.
"We do lots of things, from car crashes where there's death and cutting people out of cars, to animal and flood rescues, and a lot of medical calls with CPR."
For Te Wairua, death doesn't bother her because of her Maori upbringing.
"I was raised around a marae and death, so instead, my thoughts go to how dramatically people's lives change in a second. They might've just left their family or were going to see them."
The brave mum relies on her training to get through.
She says, "You're assigned to do something and if you don't do the job, it won't be done. Your chief is there to support you and your team knows you really well, so they won't put you in the midst of something you don't deal well with."
Managing to juggle her volunteer work with a big family, including four- month-old Te Aumarire, Te Wairua says she and Eli take turns attending call-outs.
"If I'm in the middle of making dinner, Eli will go, and if he's bathing the kids, I will. The kids love that we do this and understand that when our pager goes off, someone needs help."
Te Wairua says there aren't many other couples in the Kawakawa Fire Brigade, but with the support of their whanau, the husband and wife team manage the load.
"A lot of people say it's a sacrifice, but for us, we're honoured to be a part of it."
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