Women in Transport – Nora Comer The firewood lady

7 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineNovember 8, 2016

When the weather cools rapidly, there‘s an increasing demand for firewood. A potential customer searches ‘firewood suppliers in Auckland‘ on the internet. One of the companies listed as supplying firewood is Comer Firewood in Whenuapai on the northwest fringe of the city. The customer orders a load. The delivery day is arranged and, at the agreed time, a 7-tonne truck loaded with firewood drives into the driveway and the driver hops out to discuss the drop-off point. The driver is an immediate surprise. The driver is a 69-year-old woman, Nora Comer, and the surprise factor is a common occurrence for her. Customers often comment that it is a very pleasant surprise to see a woman delivering a load of firewood. 

Nora has been delivering firewood up to 10 times a day anywhere in the Greater Auckland area for around 35 years. She was born in Helensville in 1947, and after leaving high school in 1963 she moved to Dargaville, and later to Auckland to train as a school dental nurse. After graduating she moved to Ruawai, working in local schools carrying out dental work for children. 

In 1964 Nora met Les Comer, later marrying him. Their early years together included buying a milk run in the Ruawai/ Dargaville region, building a block of shops in Paparoa, and eventually moving to a farm at South Head on the Kaipara Harbour, where they subsequently had two sons and a daughter. 

The farm contained large areas of teatree (manuka) and they were approached to supply significant quantities of teatree timber to JBL‘s fishery company, for use in their fish smoking operation on the Auckland wharves. Nora had obtained her bus driver‘s licence to work for the local school bus operation, and was no stranger to driving heavy vehicles. When the teatree run to Auckland started she drove the delivery truck, a Nissan Caball, from South Head to the JBL smoke plant in central Auckland and return each day. By 1980, Nora was a full-time driver delivering firewood. The demand for domestic firewood had increased rapidly, and she had started supplying that market when the JBL operation collapsed. Eventually that became a full-on delivery service to domestic customers in the Auckland area. 

Above photo: An undermined concrete driveway broke up with the weight of a truck Nora was driving.

Thirty-six years later, Nora still does about eight deliveries a day, including Saturday, and when under pressure during the autumn season (which is her busiest time of the year), she employs part-time drivers to handle the demand from the city. Because she‘s the face of the business, she does the actual deliveries. Drivers bring trucks loaded with firewood to her and take an empty truck back to Whenuapai for a refill while she delivers the firewood. 

“After so many years doing deliveries, ‘Nora the firewood lady‘ is often specifically requested to deliver a load because she knows exactly where to go,” she said. 

“It is sometimes staggering what the customers expect and where they often expect me to be able to get a 7-tonne truck laden with eight metres of firewood to the drop-off point.” One very memorable delivery saw the concrete driveway collapse under the truck‘s weight and it would have dropped considerably further if the front bumper on the truck had not caught on a solid section of concrete that supported it. “It took a lot longer to get the crane up to extract the truck than it did to dump the load of firewood,” Nora said with a smile. Nora, “along with Les‘s occasional input ”, controls the firewood business. Les drives his near-new Mercedes-Benz Actros carting export logs to Marsden Point almost every day and when he arrives back at the Whenuapai depot, usually helps to load the firewood trucks, which now number eight, ready for the next day. 

They‘ve moved out of South Head and at the moment the firewood is processed at their plant in Hellensville, where several different varieties of firewood are produced. It‘s then bulk delivered to the Whenuapai despatch depot. This will change when the entire operation moves to a planned central site at Hellensville. By using her delivery model, Nora reckons delivery times for her 5000-plus customers will not be affected greatly. 

“I will probably be on the road as much as I am now,” Nora said. “A round trip [from Helensville] usually takes about three hours but that time is controlled by Auckland‘s mad traffic and residential access.” 

With two office staff (on rotating shifts) running the administration, Nora spends most of her time delivering throughout Auckland. 

As well as carting logs to Marsden Point, Les also collects logs from private stands. Some are export, some firewood, and the remainder are pulp logs. The firewood logs are delivered to the Hellensville site, where they are cut and processed for Nora to deliver. 

When asked when the couple are going to slow down, the same answer comes from both. “ W hen we come across something that will give us as much, or more, satisfaction than our current operation.”