Queenstown fire stalwart bows out

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Bowing out of 37 years with Queenstown Fire Brigade, volunteer Lyall McGregor puts good times ahead of bad.
McGregor: “I’ve loved every minute of it. It becomes part of your life.” 

The senior firefighter called it quits with brigade bosses last night after continuous service since 1975 – bar one year working out of town.

Highlighting the camaraderie and social activity, McGregor says: “If someone who joins has a quarter the fun I’ve had, they’ll achieve something.

“You never do anything on your own – if you’re going into a fire, you’ve always got someone with you. It takes two people to man a hose.” 

In the 1970s McGregor was singer-guitarist in a top Queenstown band Cord 3 – and the annual Fire Brigade Ball was the town’s top gig.

Brigade volunteers looked like a friendly bunch so musician McGregor joined up – and stayed on. As well as battling blazes, McGregor’s been the social director running Christmas parties and annual dinners – and since the 1980s, ‘The Singing Fireman’ on the brigade’s Winter Festival floats.

“Each float I’ve done has had a fire safety theme,” McGregor says – he picks a popular tune and tweaks the words.

The brigade’s changed since he joined, McGregor acknowledges – for example, it was run by the council then. 

“You didn’t have the sophisticated equipment we have on firetrucks now – everything was quite basic. New recruits have police checks and a lot of different things [and] a week away of intensive live-in training,” McGregor says.

The brigade has just three paid staff and 30 volunteers, and McGregor says there’s now a higher volunteer turnover – so how long can the organisation remain volunteer-based?

McGregor: “Over the years there’s been a lot of talk – especially from other brigades – of Queenstown [having only paid firefighters]. But it’s never really looked financially viable.”

Though stressing the highlights of his sterling 37 years, McGregor nevertheless recounts a particular fire imprinted in his memory.

“It wasn’t a big fire, it was a small kitchen fire,” McGregor says of the 1981 call-out to a Stanley Street house.

Its sole occupant was Joy Scheib, whose husband Jo was goldmining in Skippers – McGregor knew them well.

“She was dead in the bed in front me,” McGregor says quietly, adding: “she died from smoke inhalation.” 

It was the first fire death he’d experienced. 

A life member of the brigade, McGregor says he’s not leaving totally.

“I’m giving up operational duties but I still want to keep a little finger in the pie and help out wherever I can.”

McGregor says he’ll happily tend to fire station gardens.