Real Life

Firefighting heroes: ‘I couldn’t wait to join dad!’

When the siren sounds, trailblazers Paul and Olivia have a burning desire to help

Two years ago, Canterbury teenager Olivia Chinnery sat in the back of a moving fire truck, sirens roaring as crew in uniform pulled on their helmets beside her. It was her first bushfire callout as a freshly recruited volunteer for the Woodend Fire Brigade and as smoke emerged ahead of them, the driver instructed, “It’s going to be a big one!”

“There was a huge scrubby at Pines Beach, and as we were driving towards the smoke, everyone was being issued instructions for our arrival and I was sitting there freaking out a bit!” recalls the 18-year-old, whose father Paul, also a firefighter for the past 20 years, was in the front. “But I’d waited most of my life to be there doing it.”

From as young as five, Olivia accompanied Paul to the local fire station, near their family’s nursery business in the Waimakariri District, where she’d happily sweep the engine bay on a Sunday.

Schoolgirl Olivia was a regular sight at the Woodend station doing chores.

Although she and her sisters Nicole, 25, a nurse, and legal administrator Emma, 23, each had turns joining their dad at the station, it was Olivia who followed in his footsteps at age 16.

Sister Nicole’s wedding included an engine!

“Before I joined as a volunteer firefighter, I was doing a lot of work around fire science as a technician for forest research, which got me interested,” explains Paul, 50, who is married to Edna, 49. “When I was made redundant, I started a nursery around the corner from the fire station and joined to help my community. I enjoy the adrenaline of firefighting. The trees at the nursery don’t give you that much of a rush!”

Whenever Paul received callouts while his daughters were growing up, they’d race to give him his car keys and socks, before opening the front door to wave him goodbye. But on Tuesday, February 22, 2011, when the devastating Christchurch earthquake hit, Olivia and her sisters cried and asked him to stay home.

Paul and Edna had been shopping for touch boots in the city when the deadly quake struck. They quickly left and drove the 30-minutes home, picking their daughters up from school, before Paul headed back out with the fire brigade to work on the fallen CTV building.

“It was pretty frightening, seeing all that carnage. It’s still pretty raw. It can be consuming if you let it, so you have to balance your life out,” shares Paul, who likes to spend time with his family hunting and fishing.

“The girls have always been with me snorkelling, shooting rabbits or going trout fishing. Olivia shot her first deer last year.”

The pair are hooked on fishing.

Like her dad, Olivia wasn’t put off by the potential dangers that come with firefighting and completed a seven-day recruit course at 16.

“I gave it a go and found out I really loved it,” says the aspiring teacher, who is one of five female firefighters at her station, alongside around 25 men. “My first callout was a horse that went through the front of its float and needed cutting out.”

The scariest encounter for Olivia was becoming nauseous in her breathing apparatus because of heat exhaustion while working

on a big hay barn fire.

Despite the risks, Paul doesn’t worry about his youngest, explaining she’s safe and more than capable thanks to great training.

No two firefighting jobs are the same for the pair, and can include anything from fires and fatal car crashes to potential fuel tank spills and cats in trees!

“It’s crazy that the cats in trees is actually a thing,” laughs Paul. “We’ve also had teenagers who’d been drinking stuck up trees and couldn’t get back down. If you sat all the firefighters down with a beer and talked, they’d have some funny stories.

“We have the good stories too, like the time our team cut a girl out of her car after a crash five years ago and she came to say thank you. She and her little daughter were pretty knocked around and it was a pretty bad crash.”

Although Paul was away the day the young mother came to visit the fire station, the two were later introduced by mutual friends at a wedding, and she remembered Paul from that day. The memory, he says, still sends shivers up his spine.

“It’s good to have someone to share the adrenaline with, and if Dad and I get a callout and we’re both at home, we’ll go together,” tells Olivia. “Usually, we’ll do our own thing because Dad’s normally driving and I’m in the back being given tasks.

But it’s nice to come home together and have a debrief.”

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