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WORDS BY ROSS PEDDLESDEN

By the early 1880 insurance companies in the fledgling town of Bundaberg had had enough of fires, and so political pressure was applied to establish a local fire service.  In early 1884 that service began, controlled by a local Board of council nominees and insurance industry representatives that would go on to serve the community for more than 100 years.

The service started small, with 29 volunteer officers and a hand-operated pump, until a state-of-the-art horse-drawn and steam-operated pump was purchased in 1886.  There being no reticulated water system, several 2000-gallon tanks were set up around town to supply water for firefighting.  The early machines were housed in a shed on Post Office Lane, but by 1892 Bundaberg’s first fire station was built in Woongarra Street at the rear of the present Civic Centre.  The facility also housed a bell tower and the number of rings would tell firefighters which part of town to head to in case of a fire.

By 1918 a new facility was needed and a new station was built on Bourbong Street on the site of the present Council offices next to Buss Park.  This facility included some technical breakthroughs, including the first system of notification of fires by telephone and in 1923 entry into the world of motorised fire engines with the purchase of a Ford chassis to carry an existing pump.

By the 1930s this facility was deemed inadequate, and a new brick building arose on the same site.  It recognised the gradual change from volunteer to professional firefighters, including sleeping accommodation for two officers and permanent quarters for the Chief Officer.

This building served the community for the next 25 years, but by the ‘50s it could no longer house the motorised fire engines that the service needed, and by 1958 another new station was built in Woongarra Street, complete with a triple engine bay, rooms to house professional firefighters, training facilities, accommodation for the Chief Officer and his family and a Board Room.  Not everything was new.  Retired Chief Station Officer Alan Fraser started there in 1962 and worked with the 1928 Dennis fire engine which was still in service; open cab and all. 

The station continued to evolve for 70 years. The need to fight multi-story fires necessitated the purchase of new types of equipment, and the advent of better vehicles.  It also marked the end of the era of brass hose fittings and picturesque brass helmets, as lighter and better alternatives became available.

The really big change for many of the firefighters came in the late ‘80s with the end of the local Board, and the advent of the Queensland Fire Service. As the firies tell it, getting hold of new modern equipment became easier, but they felt the loss of their local system of management, with orders now coming from Brisbane and Maryborough.

The 2013 floods marked the beginning of the end for the Woongarra Street station. It was the last CBD station. The fire service now has a new high-tech home in Thabeban, but the old building lives on and is about to begin its new life as a community facility. 

Community connection

WORDS BY MICHAEL DART

Have you heard the story about how new recruits were inducted at the Old Fire Station? They had to ascend the fire tower for training after being told that the sound of sawing they could hear next door was the undertakers sawing the arms off corpses to fit into coffins because of rigor mortis!

It is tales like this that shape our community and help build connections. Many triumphs, tragedies and travails were shared at the old Woongarra Street fire station in its time. Mateship and camaraderie bloomed. And now through a wonderful collaboration led by Bridges Health and Community Care, the fire station will once more be a place for tales, stories and collaboration through art and friendship.

Bridges is known for delivering quality mental health services across the Wide Bay, Burnett and Central Queensland for more than 25 years. Now they are extending their programs to include arts and cultural-led wellbeing that aims to improve the health of the community through social connection and inclusion. 

The grand vision is to renovate the fire station, respecting its architecture and history while building programs and projects that will roll out onsite and through outreach programs.

“We encourage the community to join us on our journey of creating this space for the community to come together, with workshop and performance spaces, a café, studio, residency and training programs all part of the mix,” Bridges CEO Sharon Sarah said.

The relationship between the arts and mental health is well established, applying creative practices, like painting, dancing and role play as evidence-based interventions for mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. There is also growing evidence that the arts can be used to sustain a sense of wellness.  In other words, experiencing, viewing and practising the arts can help build emotional capacity.  

Bridges has started a Friends of the Fire Station Facebook group, where people can continue to share stories and follow the precinct’s development. 

Ross Peddlesden is a member of the Bundaberg & District Historical Museum, as well as an author, Rotarian and passionate community volunteer.

Michael Dart is an actor, director and member of Bundaberg’s Playhouse Theatre.