1976: Fire, Heat, and Uniforms

Who’d Have Thought That, About Drought Podcast One

More podcasts are available from the Experiences of Drought page.

Transcript of Podcast One: 1976: Fire, Heat, and Uniforms

Hello, I’m Dr Rebecca Pearce and you’re listening to the ‘Who’d have thought that’ About Drought podcast series. In this series I am going to be sharing with you some of the very interesting and detailed information that contributors have shared with me in my quest to record memories of past droughts from around the UK. What do I mean by ‘Who’d have thought that?’ well, that’s just it; highlights from my encounters with willing memory donors when they have said things that I never would have thought about in connection with the impacts of and responses to droughts in the natural and social spheres. Things like this:
Brian “I can remember the leggings that we used to wear back in the 70s and that were made of plastic and the helmets, believe it or not, were made out of hardboard….That’s right, yes, and you wouldn’t believe that they would make leggings out of plastic but they were yellow plastic they were and, I’ll be honest with you, they used to melt very easily, especially on the bottom where your wellington boots were.”
Yes, who’d have thought that in the 1970s we would have been sending people to fight heath and mountain fires in plastic and hardboard? That was Brian, a retained firefighter in the Herefordshire fire service. We were discussing the difficulties he and his colleagues encountered whilst fighting fires during the long, hot, summer of 1976.
Of course, Brian is quite happy with the uniform he has today:
Brian “…today, right, the equipment, the leggings, the tunic, it’s all fire resistant now. It’s absolutely top kit.”

Thanks Brian.
Brian was not the only one who struggled with the uniform. Here’s Glyn, another fire fighter talking about the Mountain Fires in Wales that same year and in particular, the Blorenge Mountain Fire that started next to his home town of Blaenavon.
Glyn “There were a lot of firemen because I think the whole of the South of Wales was on fire. A lot of them were started deliberate…The ’76 one, it’s a funny thing that day because I put the call in.
Rebecca Oh, really?

Glyn “Yes, because me and the wife… I was working. I had to go to work at six
In the evening, onthe night shift. So I said to the wife, ‘we’ll have a little picnic up the
Keeper’s, nice day.”

Rebecca That’s the Keeper’s Pond up there?

Glyn “Up there, yes. We were having a nice little picnic and then I could see the fire starting. So that spoiled our day.”

Rebecca Did it just sort of spontaneously start?

Glyn “Spontaneous, yes. There were no children involved. From then on, it was nine weeks of graft.”

Rebecca What did you see initially, literally just a few flames?

Glyn “Just a bit of smoke, but I knew what was going to happen because it was so dry, it was.”

Rebecca Nine weeks, so what was that work? What was the nine weeks of graft like?

Glyn “Very tiring. You were just tired from start to finish.”

Rebecca What kind of area did the fire eventually cover?

Glyn “Quite a few acres because as you come up over the Keeper’s to your left-hand side, all that was burning”.

Rebecca That obviously was burning because there’s a lot of peat underneath as well as the bracken, the heather on top. How did you go about fighting the fire?

Glyn “With beaters.”

Rebecca Right, so it was all done with beaters?

Glyn “Most of it was done with beaters until finally… there are two ponds we could go from to make a relay, that’s the Ball’s Pond they call it, and the Keeper’s Pond. They had two relay lengths from there.”

Rebecca When you say a relay, this is sort of hoses joined together?

Glyn “You put about three or four lengths of hose out and then a small pump in between and that’s how it goes on. Most of it was done by beaters. Then we had to bring the Green Goddesses in”.
Both Brian and Glyn explain in their oral history recordings that were made for the historic drought project, that fire officers would often work twelve hour shifts without breaks back then. Not only did they have to wear heavy tunics and plastic trousers, but they didn’t generally carry drinking water.
Dehydration was a serious problem and removing a part of the uniform could get them into trouble. At one point, Glyn got so hot he took off his tunic and fortunately for him his commanding officer said he completely understood that it was impossible to cope in the heat in full uniform.
Of course, today things are very different. Fire engines are not only equipped with the means of fighting fires which includes knapsack sprayers that make heath fires easier to control but they also carry drinking water and some even have tea and coffee making machines onboard.
In the UK we have both summer and winter droughts. The intensity of the final three months of the drought in 1976 came about because it was preceded by two dry winters and the summer of 1975 was also dry but not quite as hot.
For lots of people, 1976 was a great time for outdoor fun and quite often just sun-bathing. For those who had important roles protecting the health and safety of the nation often they were not able to dress down. Like Mary who was in charge of an isolation ward in a hospital.
Mary “Well, we were told that there was a problem with Lassa fever being brought back from Africa to here, and Marburg disease as well, which is similar to Ebola. It comes from monkeys and so on, and fruit bats. We had, sort of, tried, to, sort of, get together a kit to deal with it, but until you do it you don’t really know. One day I was phoned to say that the ambulance people were bringing in a chap from North Devon, and they thought he might, he had been in contact with Lassa fever, but I didn’t know in what way…So we quickly organised ourselves and got dressed up, you know, and this poor man arrived, looking very bewildered with a mask on his face, and the ambulance man dripping with sweat in this double suited and all the rest of it. They brought him in, put him into bed. By the time I’d made him a cup of tea, settled him in, taken his temperature, showed him where things were, I was just finished. You know, because we had this non permeable personal protections suits..”
Rebecca no, so how long do you think would have been your maximum in a suit?
Mary “Half an hour, at least, per patient, you know, in the room. Then you’d have to come out and drink and strip off. We all had our hair cut short, you know, that was the other thing, you know, girls with very long hair ended up with, sort of, almost crew cuts, because you just couldn’t cope with hair round your neck… You went on duty and you were just soaked in about half an hour. Yes, you never felt really fresh, ever….. Yes we were getting desperate really. Everybody got very tired because people would go off sick, just through heat exhaustion really, you can’t go on in that temperature for long.”
We think of the 1976 drought as the standpipe drought though not all parts of the country experienced water rationing to that level. However many towns and villages in Wales and Devon were affected by rota cuts or standpipes. The merits of both were debated and rota cuts were considered to be more manageable, but they had the unintended consequence in Wales of making it even harder to fight fires as Glyn went on to explain:
Glyn “Well, we had one incident where the water board they shut the water off and that was over Crumlin. We had a bad fire there and it ended up going to some cottages and I thought, ‘We can’t beat this out,’ so we had to have water. So we phoned the board and they got the water just in time. Just in time. Or there’d been a couple of cottages gone up. So that’s how it went.”
With so few opportunities to access water and exhausted fire crews, the mountain fires raged for weeks and caused a lot of lasting damage. I asked Glyn how it ended.
Rebecca So eventually the fire went out but did it really need to rain quite a bit before it completely went out?

Glyn “Yes. It started raining a little bit but not a lot. You need a lot of rain on a mountain fire because the peat goes down sometimes six or perhaps seven feet in some places. We used to know that because we’d be walking along and…”

Rebecca Oh really, you’d just sort of disappear in?

Glyn “Yes (Laughter) it was hot I can tell you!”

Rebecca Oh, I bet, yes. I didn’t know that.

Glyn “And we never swore”.

Rebecca No?

Glyn “No.”

Rebecca Very good.

Glyn “Good boys we were.”

Rebecca Good. I’m glad to hear that.

Blaenavon is now an industrial world heritage site and some of the success of the site can be attributed to the fire in 1976 according to local historian Dr Nathan Matthews.
Nathan “It was quite a damaging fire. A lot of the heather moorland was destroyed. Lots of animals, sadly, lost their lives. But interestingly, a lot of the area’s industrial heritage was actually made more visible by the fire. It removed a lot of the heather and the brackens, and you could see a lot of the industrial remains of the area.”
I’ll be talking more about the connections between droughts and archaeology in the next podcast and I hope you can find the time to join me for another selection of who’d have thought that moments but in the meantime, if you want to find out more about the impacts of the 1976 drought, or you would like to hear the my conversations with Brian, Glyn and Mary in full, these can be found via the Historic Drought Inventory. In the inventory you will also find plenty of information from local, and regional newspapers that detail the full extent of some of the major fires in Wales and the Westcountry, and in particular, the Blorenge Mountain fire is described in detail in items from the Free Press of Monmouthshire, incorporating the Pontypool Free Press and Herald of the Hills.

Event debrief: ENDOWS communities stakeholders meeting 27th Oct 2017

Which communities and why?

How best do we connect a diverse range of publics and communities with research arising from the NERC Drought and Water Scarcity research programme? This was one of the themes discussed at the first Community Stakeholder workshop held at the University of the West of England, Bristol on 27th October 2017. Stakeholders represented a range of organisations interacting with public and community groups, from water companies and local government to wildlife trusts. Discussions highlighted the need to move beyond the ‘usual suspects’ in knowledge exchange and tackle those groups able to make water savings, but who have little recognition of the increasing risks of water scarcity in Britain. The need for sustained interaction with key intermediary groups and gatekeepers, as well as production of targeted and tailored materials for those with different prior levels of capital or interest also featured in the wide-ranging discussions. This group will form the basis for building a ‘community of practice’ developing and testing evidence that can be used in engaging publics/communities in drought risk decision-making.

Event debrief: ENDOWS business stakeholders meeting 31st Oct 2017

Business impacts of water scarcity

If your business didn’t have access to water or sufficient water quality, what would the impacts be? What are the priorities for businesses when it comes to information about drought and water scarcity? These were two of the themes discussed at a Business Stakeholder workshop held at the University of the West of England, Bristol, on Tuesday 31st October 2017. Stakeholders representing water companies, energy companies, and farmer-facing and public-service organisations attended to feed their views into the ENDOWS work programme. Discussions highlighted uncertainty about the future, and the need for earlier warning systems – for businesses to understand with greater lead time when water restrictions would occur (the later the warnings, the more expensive it becomes). Other workshop outcomes included:

  • The diversity of different types of business, water use and hence vulnerability to drought and water scarcity was acknowledged; it was also recognised that there will be opportunities for some businesses.
  • The need of some businesses for information to fill the ‘blind spot’ between weather forecasting (which becomes unreliable after 2 weeks), and seasonal forecasting (which is more reliable 3-4 months ahead), which would allow them to plan more effectively. There are also issues with the ability of current science skillsets to fill this gap.
  • There is a possibility to group, and communicate with, businesses via the type of water extraction they use primarily: groundwater, surface water flows, storage reservoirs.
  • It can seem counterintuitive or be publically unacceptable that water scarcity measures need to be implemented in winter (perhaps when it’s raining), when water stocks are at their lowest. There was a feeling that it was easier to communicate about drought when it felt intuitive to do so (during hot, dry weather), and so these opportunities need to be maximised pragmatically by businesses. It is also necessary to bust some myths regarding droughts only occurring in summer!
  • Much of the focus so far has been on the quantity of water resources, but there is now more attention being given by businesses to water quality – and also to the way low flows may impact on filtration systems via, for e.g., eutrophic blooms of certain organisms.
  • Trade-offs between using water for cooling systems, for example, and alternatives, must be balanced – as many alternative coolants may include harmful chemicals or require greater energy use.
  • Several in the group deemed it important to take account of the way information about water actually travels to consumers – often via intermediaries such as water retail companies or agronomists – rather than being conveyed directly from suppliers.

It was seen as essential not to create yet another selection of disaggregated tools, but to think about what integrated platforms the DWS outputs can build towards. One such example platform is the US government’s National Integrated Drought Information System, where visitors can drill down to find out more about drought in their region. Sharing data from locally collected sources on central, open platforms was seen as important, yet there are disincentives for businesses to cooperate, as it may put them at competitive disadvantage.

Workshop discussions also emphasised the need to make case studies and information relevant to specific business sectors, and a case for ‘knowing your own water data’ – i.e. encouraging scientific measurement within businesses, rather than this being outsourced and therefore distanced from the people with the greatest interest in the business.

Event debrief: MaRIUS LIVE! London, Nov 2017

MaRIUS LIVE! Managing the risks, impacts and uncertainties of droughts and water scarcity was held on the 2nd of November 2017.

Trevor Bishop, Director of Strategy and Planning at OFWAT, described MaRIUS as “one of the most important bits of research that we’ve seen in drought and water scarcity” as more than 80 delegates met to hear presentations setting out the findings of the project’s research and the outputs available for use.

still from event video available on YouTube

Trevor gave the opening address with Professor Jim Hall, Director of the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University, PI of MaRIUS, summarising the project for audience members representing water and energy companies, regulators, consultancies and researchers.

The project researchers took the opportunity to outline their findings on the effect of drought on people and the environment, covering topics of governance, communities, drought management , hydrology, water quality and resources, aquatic and terrestrial ecology, agriculture, the economy and electricity supply.

Feedback from the half-day event has been very positive with the project’s datasets generating particular interest. Films will shortly be available from MaRIUS Live! One giving an overview and flavour of the event – including an interview with Trevor Bishop on the value of MaRIUS – and the others featuring the series of presentations. All links will be published here on AboutDrought and the MaRIUS website.

If you attended MaRIUS LIVE! But have not yet given your feedback, please complete the feedback form.

The post event delegate pack, including slide presentations and other materials, are now available. Links to Videos of the presentations are listed on this website.

For more news on MaRIUS visit the project website.

UK Hydrological Situation Update December 2017

Drought and Water Scarcity Programme researchers from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the British Geological Survey have published an overview of the current hydrological status of the UK.

The hydrological situation in November, showing river flows (left) and groundwater levels (right). ©NERC

Webinar: Introducing the NERC ‘Drought and Water Scarcity in the UK’ research programme’s Engagement project, ‘ENDOWS’

Wednesday 13 December at 11 am
30 minutes duration
Host: Helen Gavin, University of Oxford/Atkins
Presenter: Helen Gavin (slides by Jamie Hannaford, CEH)

Video

Topic

This webinar features the UK Research Councils’ programme, ‘Drought and Water Scarcity in the UK’. The webinar will focus on a project within this programme called ‘ENDOWS’: ENgaging diverse stakeholders and publics with outputs from the UK DrOught and Water Scarcity programme.

The objective of ENDOWS is to engage with stakeholders, practitioners, and publics, to involve them in the UK Drought and Water Scarcity programme and to disseminate information about the findings, outputs and datasets arising from the programme that everyone can use.

Jamie Hannaford will give a 20 minute overview to the ENDOWS phase of work, and afterwards there will 10 minutes to answer questions.

Joining instructions:

Join from a PC, Mac, iPad, iPhone or Android device by clicking this URL:  https://zoom.us/j/284627623

Join by phone from the UK:  +44 (0) 20 3695 0088

The Webinar ID is: 284 627 623

Test news post

News items added on 22/11/2017

Large areas of the Iberian Peninsula are experiencing extreme drought conditions with Spain experiencing the worst drought for decades

New research shows droughts may be more costly than floods in cities

News items added on 18/10/2017

Horn of Africa Drought Response Issue No. 04 (5th October 2017) Currently over 20 million people are estimated to be affected by drought across the Horn of Africa

South Africa’s drooping flower tourism Ongoing drought in South Africa is affecting tourism

Weakening N American monsoon linked to global warming may lead to continued reduction in water resources in California:

Link established between European summer heatwave of 2017 and global warming:

MaRIUS (Managing the Risks, Impacts and Uncertainties of drought and water Scarcity) LIVE

We held our Showcase Event on 2 November 2017 to set out the findings of the MaRIUS research, and what outputs are available. This event profiled the research findings on the effect and impacts of droughts and water scarcity in the UK, what outputs are available for use; what further work that is planned, and how interested parties can get involved.

Videos

MaRIUS Showcase video playlist on YouTube

More information

The span of the MaRIUS project is large and covers physical and social science topics including: drought governance; drought options and management; community responses and environmental competency. It includes climatic aspects of drought and the derivation of a synthetic ‘drought event library’; hydrological responses both on a catchment and national scale; effects on water quality including nutrient concentration in rivers and algal concentrations in reservoirs, and effect of land use change; the ramifications on water resources on the Thames catchment and also nationally. It includes the impact of drought and water scarcity on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems; agriculture and farming; the economy; and on electricity production.

The event was very successful and provided a key opportunity for stakeholders and researchers to meet and discuss the effect and impact of drought and water scarcity in the UK and what research outputs are available for the whole community.

View further information on the MaRIUS website