Honoured to serve
Tairawhiti fire chief Charlie Turei will bow out of firefighting in September after 46 years as a firefighter and 15 years as the region’s area fire commander. He talked to reporter Murray Robertson.
Charlie Turei says he has decided to retire now “because I’m old enough to”.
It is appropriate that Charlie ends his career in Gisborne and that will happen on September 27 when he makes way for new area fire commander Peter Clark, who has been part of the FENZ team in Gisborne before.
Charlie spent most of his youthful years in this district.
“I whakapapa back to Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti.
“I moved to Tolaga Bay from Auckland when I was an 8 year old, and was raised by my stepmother’s brother and wife.”
He went to Tolaga Bay Area School for the remainder of his primary schooling but returned to Auckland for secondary school.
He was working for the Fire Service in Taupo when he came back to Gisborne in 2006, to take up the position of area commander.
“I came to Gisborne because I was encouraged to by a senior regional manager at the time.
“He asked if I would consider coming here and to be honest I hadn’t considered it at that time.
“He said it would be a good move for my career.
“After discussing it with my wife Marlene we decided to make the move. We no longer had children at home.
“I thought I would give it two or three years, but 15 years later, I’m still here.”
Charlie said he has stayed in Gisborne because he became increasingly aware that the professional, career firefighters in this district are the best he has come across as he’s travelled the country.
“They are highly motivated, are engaged in their community and very respectful of their bosses.
“I have also stayed because Tairawhiti volunteers need support, need continued backup and need someone to continually advocate on their behalf for the appropriate fleet and equipment.
“It’s not always the best fleet and equipment to be honest, but appropriate,” Charlie said,
“Volunteering is so, so difficult to promote and maintain just because our young population here are on the move the minute they finish school.”
“I’m very excited now that Fire and Emergency New Zealand is certainly going to have a very different structure to that I managed, and it’s actually going to be better,” he said.
“The community of Tairawhiti should see some very good changes coming.
“I’m picking once the organisation structure has fully stood up, the real work will begin.”
In terms of fire and emergency incidents that stand out for him, Charlie recalls the Gisborne earthquake on December 20, 2007.
“I had left town at 4pm that day and was headed away on annual leave.
“Marlene and I had stopped in Ohope and were going to overnight there, but at 9.45pm thereabouts the house we were staying in started to shake.
“My wife and I laughed and thought Ohope is having a nice little shake, but within minutes my pager went off and my phone went and I found out about the major quake here.
“Our communications centre told me, ‘You have a very large earthquake there Charlie. There’s been buildings collapse’.
“So we made the dash home, and the rest is history.”
His Gisborne deputy John Haggland held the fort till Charlie got back to town and then he led his fire crews through the rest of that difficult, harrowing night, and in the days that followed.
Charlie started as a firefighter on June 6 1975, based at Lower Hutt, then Upper Hutt, and was appointed to Station Officer in Central Wellington in 1980.
In those years he attended multiple structure fires across all of Wellington, schools, multi-storey industrial fires, and crashes.
“Too many to count,” Charlie said.
“My largest fire at that time involved the Mobil Oil storage unit at Seaview. The bulk store vats caught fire, with four tanks each carrying 4000L of various oils and fuel, and it spread to involve almost the entire site.”
More than 100 firefighters were involved in fighting it for more than 24 hours.
“We also had a lot of vegetation fires that went for days. In those days there were no helicopters with monsoon buckets to help.
“You chased the fires on foot or you let them come to you.”
In the mid-1980s Charlie and his family moved to Hamilton where he had fire safety and fire investigator roles. He also lectured at Waikato University, teaching a fire design paper.
In 1987 it was off to Palmerston North where he became a Senior Station Officer, and he was appointed Chief Fire Officer there in 1995.
“This was a difficult time of change in the Fire Service when it went into a transition period which took its toll and I resigned in 1996 to take up a role as Fire Officer for the DHB Mid Central Health.”
He returned to the Fire Service two years later.
“A new manager at the time asked me to return to the fold. I was reluctant.
“However, long story short, Marlene told me in no uncertain terms - ‘you will take the job’. So now you know who’s the boss in our house.”
Since then Charlie has worked in Whanganui (1998) as Deputy Chief Fire Officer, Fire Safety Officer and Principal Rural Fire Officer.
Then the family moved to Kawerau (1999-2003) where Charlie was Chief Fire Officer and Fire Safety Officer.
“That was a dual role also covering all of the Eastern Bay of Plenty from Kawerau to Opotiki to Waihau Bay.”
In 2003 he moved to Taupo as Chief Fire Officer, and from there to Gisborne in 2006.
Along the way Charlie and Marlene, who works as a business finance manager for Agfirst Engineering in Gisborne, had two children.
Matt is a doctor, a consulting radiologist in Hawke’s Bay and daughter Charlene works for a design company in Wellington.
They have four grandchildren, and they are looking forward to spending more time with them all now Charlie is retiring.
“When I look back on a very long career the only thing I would change would be not to move about as often because it can be very disruptive to the family, particularly the children.
“Otherwise, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.
“I am very grateful to Marlene. She sacrificed her career to stay at home and raise our children till our daughter reached the age of 14.
“Their career success is due to Marlene’s commitment. She has been the stable, consistent influence, always picking up work in her field of financial and business management.
“I’ve been proud to be a member of the Fire Service and now FENZ, and I wish Fire and Emergency New Zealand all the best.”