Home' Greymouth Star : September 16th 2014 Contents Greymouth Star
6 - Tuesday, September 16, 2014
irefighting is a noble profession that
Lee Swinburn became involved in
when he was aged just 17.
Twenty-six years later he is in
charge of the Greymouth Volunteer
Fire Brigade, but it is something the
43-year-old never aspired to.
One of his first fires was when the Marsden Road
Dairy burned down, and he was late. He was phoned
a few times to get his backside out of bed and head
to the blaze, and when he finally arrived sleepy-eyed
at the scene his fellow brigadesmen were packing up
and heading back to the station.
Lee Swinburn grew up in the family home at the
end of Threadneedle Street, with mum Margaret, dad
Ken, younger brother Craig and older sister Diane. It
was handy to school, with both St Patrick’s Primary
School and John Paul II High School just across
the road. He says he was not much of a scholar, but
stayed at school until he was 17.
As a youngster, when he was not bush bashing up
the hill behind their house, he was working. After
school Lee was a paperboy for the Greymouth
Star, had a milk run, and every Friday afternoon
he bagged spuds at the old dairy on the corner of
Threadneedle and Alexander streets, run by the
Lee says he was convinced his boss organised a
truckload of potatoes to arrive from Christchurch
every Friday just for him to weigh into 5kg bags —
“then I got paid with a bag of spuds”. The highlight
of his paper round was collection days once a
fortnight, when he received a few tips from grateful
subscribers. Lee and his siblings shared a bike among
them, so he worked extra hard and saved up for one
of his own. He remembers heading to Kitchingham
Cycles and buying his brand new 10-speed. In
his mind it was the Formula One of bicycles. His
maiden voyage on it was a trip to remember — but
for all the wrong reasons.
“On my ride I ran over a cat and the bike was
badly damaged. In fact, I had to walk home, pushing
it because it was wrecked. It cost me just about as
much as I paid for it to get it repaired!”
As a lad he spent hours standing on riverbanks up
the Grey Valley trout fishing with his dad, or possum
“Living up the hill in Threadneedle Street we
would often venture up into the bush out the back
and make huts, I loved the outdoors.”
He also loved the sports field, playing both rugby
and league for Marist, hockey for Runanga, and hit a
shuttlecock or two around at the Civic Centre, with
Anita Bone as his coach.
He was also in the swimming club, but well before
the days of the heated aquatic centre: “ That was
when the pool didn’t have a roof and it was bloody
Go karting also featured in his early years. He
remains a big fan of motorsport and has also been
involved with speedway at Greenstone Park.
“I’ve built a few cars to race in the TQ class. I was
17 when I started the speedway stuff. First, I built
cars by myself, then my brother Craig and I did it
together. I’ve never been hurt in a race but a few
cars have come off worse for wear. One Friday I was
at the speedway with my mates and they wanted to
were two wheels and the bonnet — the rest was
At school, Lee was an average student and
managed to hang in there until the sixth form.
“School wasn’t really my thing. I left in 1987 and
got an apprenticeship at Dispatch as a fitter-turner. I
didn’t really know what a fitter-turner did, but I liked
the idea of welding and making stuff.”
He was one of the last apprentices to go through
the system based on hours, and his apprenticeship
was for 8000 hours. When he was at the foundry
there were as many as 60 staff working there. A ritual
on Friday nights after work involved a large tub filled
with water, and throwing someone in it.
“ For some reason, I got thrown into it every Friday
night and quickly learned to take a change of clothes
to work. I was a bit cheeky, which may have been one
of the reasons they picked me!”
When he began full-time work he was excited
about his first pay, and still has his very first pay slip,
at $3.85 an hour.
Lee spent six years at the foundry, leaving there to
work for Williams Road Metals.
“ I was there for quite a while. I was on the trucks
for a couple of years, mainly around town. When the
viaduct was being built in Otira I delivered loads of
From there he moved to his current employer,
Equip, and has been there for 17 years. The hard
work paid off seven years ago, when he became
co-owner with Peter Haddock.
Lee is married to Kelly and has three children —
Brenna, Beau and Clem.
“They are all into sport as well. Kelly and I spend
hours running them from sports field to sports
When he really wants to get away he heads to a
Bruce Bay hideaway which he shares with family
“That ’s where I escape to and I love it. When
we can we head that way as a family. I go diving,
something I have been doing for over 20 years, and
I get a crayfish or two every time we go. It’s great
down there, there’s no cellphone coverage and no
one comes down the driveway to annoy you. It ’s
a good place for a break, with plenty of peace and
quiet. The kids love it, too.”
Lee followed his father’s footsteps into the fire
brigade, but initially he was not that keen on it.
“It was pretty old school. When I joined, I was 17
and there was a big age gap — Cocky Walton would
have been the next youngest back then, and he was
in his 30s. Seventy per cent of the members had
their gold stars, and if they didn’t they were close to
getting them,” he laughed.
He has attended some pretty big fires over his time
including the blaze at the Trans-West yard, now
Farmlands, in Herbert Street.
“That would have been one of the biggest,” he said.
BOC Gas was attached to the truck depot, and gas
cylinders were exploding all around, destroying the
“It sounded like bombs were going off — some
of the debris from the gas cylinders ended up at
Also in 1988 the brigade had an increase in house
“This was after the big floods and lots of people
were using heaters to dry out their homes, and then
their house would mysteriously burn down.”
Another big blaze was when the Puketahi Street
flats went up in flames.
“That was a massive fire and it was a hard slog to
get to it, as well.”
Lee did not have the full-on fire training that new
firemen get these days, most of what he knows now
he learned on the job.
“I had to learn as I went — the old fellas would
give me a hose and tell me to get in there.
“The clothing we used to have was not that flash.
We had black PVC leggings that used to melt and
stick to your legs — we would go through one to
two pairs a week.”
It was, he laughs, like wearing a flash cling film
outfit, “ because of that, I didn’t have any hairs on my
legs until I was in my late 30s!”
But for all of that he has never been badly burned.
From when Lee began firefighting, until today he
reckons there has been a total about-turn in the type
of calls fire brigades attend.
“In my early days 80% of the calls were to structure
fires and about 5% were rescue ones. Now, it has
almost turned right around, with over half the calls
are to rescues like motor vehicle accidents.”
The job of a firefighter is not scary but
“challenging”, he says.
The big downside of the job is when people die,
“ but for every one that is not so good there were 10
He speaks highly of his volunteer colleagues.
“They are all pretty amazing people, who are
trustworthy and reliable. There is a good mix of older
members, women and there’s a few younger recruits
coming through, which is really good to see.”
As a young recruit himself, Lee used to race with
Les Neilson to get to the station first whenever there
was a call.
“Once, I was at the Aussie with some mates when
beat Les’. Our car broke down on High Street and
Les drove past us with with a big smile on his
Now a gold star fireman himself, together with
his dad the Swinburns have given 46 years to the
Greymouth brigade, and this fire chief has no plans
to hang up the CFO hat he only recently prised off
Alan McEnaney after 55 years in the top job.
He sees people at their worst, tired, desperate and in need of help. He is a friendly face among the smoke, fire and
ashes. Lee Swinburn talks to VIV LOGIE about growing up in Greymouth and life as the town’s new chief fire officer.
PICTURE: Viv Logie
Chief fire officer Lee Swinburn, in control at the Greymouth Fire Station.
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