Extinguishing a fine firey career

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Fourth-generation firefighter Stu Ide is retiring from his 43-year full-time career. He tells Philip Chandler what he’s planning to do next, and explains why he’s a world champion goldpanner

When it comes to putting out fires and determining their cause, hardly anyone in New Zealand holds a candle to Stu Ide.

The 66-year-old retires in two weeks after 17 years as Queenstown-based fire safety officer/fire investigator for Central and North Otago, but he’s so far also notched up 47 years’ firefighting experience.

Amazingly, his family’s involvement spans almost NZ’s entire history.

Ide’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather also put out fires, making him a fourth-generation firefigher, while his son Mike is the Frankton voluntary brigade’s senior station officer.

Ide initially joined the service as a volunteer, aged 18.

His interest was sparked by reading a book on a nightclub fire in the United States that killed 492 people.

Career-wise, he started off as a watchmaking apprentice, graduating to assistant manager of a shop.

“Then I decided that sitting behind a desk all day wasn’t quite where I wanted to be and I needed to go outside and do something.”

So in 1975 he joined the Invercargill brigade full-time.

Ide, however, hankered to move to Queenstown.

“My family always holidayed here – every Christmas we would be at the Frankton camping ground and I used to paddle around the lake and do a bit of sailing.”

Unfortunately, he was told in the ’80s that a full-time Queenstown brigade was still five years away – “and if you asked that same question today, it’s still five years away”.

In 2000, he gave up firefighting – sleep deprivation from shift work was causing him grief – and took on a full-time fire safety role in Invercargill.

A year later, he took on the equivalent Queenstown-based role.

A highlight of his job’s been working with people, he says.

“As a fire investigator I get to see people who have just gone through a huge traumatic event and they’re very vulnerable and you’ve got to work with them very carefully.

“The other thing I’ve enjoyed most is working with children who have been lighting fires, and it’s just lovely to see kids who can pull themselves out of it.”

The biggest Queenstown fire he’s investigated was the Fat Badgers/The World Bar kitchen fire five years ago this month.

A lot of his role has been digging for clues through ash, embers and debris.

Interestingly, deliberately-lit fires are easier to solve than accidental ones, he says.

“We have lovely technology today which shows when accelerants have been used.”

If he has one fire prevention tip, it’s that people dispose of ashes in a bucket with a lid on top – “every year we get one of these [ash fires]”.

Moving to Queenstown’s also allowed Ide to indulge in goldpanning.

He first picked up the hobby up as a kid when he panned with his dad on the Arrow River during their holidays, and has since developed his skill to competition level.

Last year was, er, a golden year.

He took out the New Zealand championship and, with local-based daughter Megan, was in a three-person world champs-winning team in Scotland.

such a good goldpanner because I never get any so I’ve got to keep going back and practise.”

Asked why he’s retiring, Ide recalls the words of an old chief fire officer a long time ago: “He said, ‘you will know when it’s time to go’, and it’s time to go.”

The first thing he and his wife Sandy will do is spend two months renovating their Norfolk Island holiday home.

He’ll also go back to watchmaking and engraving.

“I already do some work for the local watchmaker so we’ll develop that a little bit but it won’t be full-time.”

He’ll also enjoy his surroundings.

“The other day I was walking along the beachfront and I thought, ‘I haven’t had time to enjoy it, isn’t that frustrating?’

“One of the things I’d just love to do is circumnavigate Lake Wakatipu in a kayak.”

But he also wants to continue volunteering for the Frankton brigade, which he joined when he moved to Queenstown.

“I’m probably getting a bit long in the tooth to be jumping on and off the trucks but I certainly am there as a training officer and a support officer.

“I’m happy to do that.”

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