The Hutt News
8th August 1989

After 49 years service as a fireman, you'd think Jim Deer would be looking forward to a well-earned break.

But the foundation member of the Stokes Valley Brigade says he's finding it hard to give fire-fighting up. "It's been my life", he explains.

It's a big deal when a firefighter makes it into the Gold Star league - 25 years of service. But in another 12 months, Jim would have been into double Cold Star country - if there was such a thing. He says with understatement there probably aren't other firemen around who have that record.

When Jim was 16, Stokes Valley was just a collection of mostly farmhouses and barns. Whenever there was a property or haystack fire, all the locals could do was stand to the side and watch. "I remember sitting up in bed one night watching this house burn down. When I got up in the morning, there were just the two chimney stacks left."

1940 was the year about a dozen locals formed the Stokes Valley brigade. They were mostly youngsters like Jim, or older men. Everyone in between was off fighting the war.

Uphill slog

They started with just a trailer, bucket pumps and beaters. It was an "uphill slog", Jim recalls, but at least if they couldn't save a home or haystack, they could put the fire out before it set something else alight.

Manpower was no problem after the war. But a bit of local ingenuity was needed to equip the brigade. The first Stokes Valley appliance was a big Hudson Six, cut down. With a front-mounted pump, the men would rush it to a creek or pond nearest the fire to get a water supply.

Fires at the top of the valley were tricky, Jim says. The creeks were little more than a trickle up there in the summer. Sometimes it would require some quick damming work before they could get a supply. The brigade progressed to a Dennis Fire Engine, then a big V8 van and portable pump.

Jim was "motorman" (driver) in those early days, as well as being deputy to the late fire chief George Walker. It was highly appropriate last month that Jim handed over local command to George's son Stewart.

In the '40s and '50s, the brigade relied on local generosity to fund equipment. "You had to adapt gear or go without. There was nobody to put your hand out to (for finance)," Jim says.

Adapted

By the time the brigade became a sub-station of the Hutt Valley and Bays Fire Board in the '50s, its appliance was an adapted air force truck. Jim became senior station officer in 1958, becoming officer in charge of the station in 1974.

His biggest fire was when two of the public works sheds went up in Gracefield in 1958. That was the blaze that "scorched" some of the Hutt appliances and saw firemen dousing all around the Red Head speedboat Len Southward had driven to set water speed records. The boat was saved.

The RSA blaze in Stokes Valley in the '60s was a big one, but Jim also recalls scrub blazes that would go on for four days or more.

There was always a worry that the US Marine ammunition dump - camouflaged in scrub at the entrance to the valley in the days when everyone supposed Japan would attack - would go up in one of the scrub fires. "It would have blown Stokes Valley off the map", Jim muses. But the only legacy is the odd round of old ammunition from route marches that would go off in even quite recent gorse fires.

Jim's retirement function late last month was "just mighty - a night I'll never forget."

Stewart Walker explains Jim is a motor mechanic by trade and will work on anything "so long as it's a Ford, and preferably a V8."

V8 Ford

So to take Jim and his wife Vera to the retirement do, they borrowed a 1936 V8 Ford to pick him up. "Old Jim thought it was his present," Stewart laughs.

Jim's three daughters and son came back for the dinner/dance event, along with 100 invited guests and brigadesmen.

Jim was made life member of the Fire Service Hutt Valley Sub-Association, to go with his life membership of the Stokes Valley Brigade and the Queens Fire Service Medal he was awarded in 1987.

Next Easter, the brigade celebrates its 50th Jubilee and is already on the lookout for photos and memorabilia for a book "Fifty Flaming Years". It's planning a parade of some of the old appliances that are still around, including the '51 V8 that is still used by the Eastbourne Bush Fire Force.

That's another retirement task for Jim. The old Dennis engine is up at Silverstream and needs "a tickle up" before the parade from an experienced motorman.