AN inferno that kept Opotiki firefighters busy for more than five hours has erased much town history.

The old Drill Hall at the intersection of St John and Ford streets died in a spectacular fire on Saturday afternoon, an event that was witnessed by many.

OPOTIKI police are investigating the spectacular fire of the town’s old Drill Hall as a potential arson attack.

Detective Senior Sergeant Greg Standen said the circumstances surrounding the Saturday fire, which destroyed the hall, warranted police involvement.

“As a result, an investigation began on Sunday,” Mr Standen said.
Police have secured forensic exhibits from the scene and conducted interviews.

“This includes speaking with witnesses who saw the blaze and also saw young children running from the area at the time,” Mr Standen said.

“The fire is now regarded as an arson, with Fire and Emergency New Zealand completing their examination and report also.”

Those who didn’t see the fire watched smoke rising high into the sky, knowing that something serious was happening in the town.

Neighbour Maureen Walker, who lives across the road in Ford Street, said a lot of Opotiki history had been lost in the fire.

“The hall was a bit of an eyesore, but I feel sad about it,” she said.

“It has been here since forever, all the time when we were growing up.”

Opotiki fire chief Vic Carter said the brigade had been called out at about 3.37pm, and the inferno had been witnessed by “half the town”.

“It was totally involved when we got there, and it took us a while to knock it down,” he said.

The Taneatua and Ohope fire brigades had also been called out to the blaze, which was too unsafe for firefighters to go into.

“We attacked the fire externally,” Mr Carter said.

“After a while the structure collapsed onto the wooden floor.”

The roof and walls were constructed from corrugated iron, which fell in heaps and later had to be overturned so firefighters could extinguish smouldering material underneath.

“The smoke was covering all of the town,” Mr Carter said.

“We were there until past 9pm.”

Another person who remembers the hall from childhood is Opotiki district councillor Shona Browne.

“We lived just across the road and my mother took a photo of the hall during one of the late 1950s floods,” she said.

“It has old cars and a horse in the waters of the street, typical Opotiki.”

Mrs Browne was for a long time involved in trying to restore the hall around the 100-year Anzac commemorations.

“I am absolutely saddened by this, I was unable to sleep on Saturday night,” she said.

Six of the same type of hall had been built around the same time, said Mrs Browne.

“Ours was still in the original state.”

She said the Historic Places Trust had said the hall “ticked all the boxes” to warrant preservation and a proposal based on past, present and future had been drawn up.

By documenting the hall’s past, turning it into a military museum and enabling the cadets to use the hall in the future, Mrs Browne and her co-workers had hoped the hall could be saved.

“But in the end the application was denied,” she said.

Hall owner Tracy Hillier said she was grateful that no one was injured in the fire.

Ms Hillier said she was grateful to the volunteer fire brigade for ensuring the fire did not spread to nearby properties.

“This is a challenging time and I am grateful for the help of the community to catch those responsible for the fire,” she said.

“It’s sad to lose a historic building at the hands of children.”

She said an ongoing and difficult battle against vandalism was now lost forever.

“We have been trying to keep the vandals out by securing the doors and the windows, but young people keep smashing their way in.

“We couldn’t keep them out.”

Mrs Hillier said it was still a dangerous site, so implored people to stay away from it and keep children and themselves safe.

“Do not enter the site,” she said.

The hall was not insured.

An Opotiki man, who did not want to be named, said he was angry and disappointed that part of the hall that was left standing was demolished on Sunday.

“There were items that could be saved, but have now been destroyed,” he said.

“I had items belonging to my father in there and other people had stored things there also.”

Detective Senior Sergeant Standen said police would like to speak to anyone else who may have seen young people around the area at the time of the fire.

“They can call the Opotiki police or the Crime Stoppers on 0800 555 111,” he said


History tied up in drill hall

DRILL Halls were once a common feature throughout New Zealand towns, being a requirement of the Defence Act 1909.

Opotiki’s Drill Hall was built in 1913 by George Skipper and it was a training base for soldiers going to World War I.

The hall was also the enlisting site for military service in World War II.

It was used for school classes in the 1920s and 30s and until recently a range of community events, including fairs.

The hall was also used by group activities such as scouting, karate and dancing lessons.

Scout groups stopped using the hall in 1995 due to the financial burden of maintaining the upkeep of two halls.

Opotiki Museum staff member Ann Paynter said many Opotiki people remember it as a scout hall.

“We used to have two scout groups in town,” she said.

“My sons were scouts and I was a committee member.”

Over time, schools had taken up the activities that were previously the domain of scouting, leading to a decline in interest.

“It used to be that in school, you sat inside and learned things,” Mrs Paynter said.

“But now, schools are doing camping trips and teaching you how to cook.”

The scouting organisation had divested itself of the hall some time ago.

“If we speak about living memory, people would mainly remember it as a scout hall,” Mrs Paynter said.

“We have witnessed the demise of hall that was 105 years old.”