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.

More podcasts are available from the Experiences of Drought page.

© Dr Rebecca Pearce, University of Exeter, 2018

Advancing Drought Monitoring, Prediction, and Management Capabilities workshop

18th – 20th September 2018
Location: Lancaster
Event organiser: India-UK Water Centre
Event type: Workshop
Applications: Apply online

The India-UK Water Centre is inviting applications from Indian and UK water scientists to participate in a workshop on Advancing Drought Monitoring, Prediction, and Management Capabilities to be held in Lancaster, UK 18th – 20th September 2018.

http://www.iukwc.org/call-participants-iukwc-workshop-advancing-drought-monitoring-prediction-and-management-capabilities

This workshop aims to bring together in one platform key actors engaged independently in the three domains of drought monitoring, prediction and management to leverage cutting-edge drought science to inform new approaches to meet society’s needs for drought planning and management. Specifically, this workshop aims to:

1. Assess the state-of-art of the science of drought monitoring, prediction and management globally and in India, with special focus on remote sensing-based approaches.
2. Identify gaps between research knowledge and operational requirements for drought policy and management;
3. Discuss options to develop a road map for advancing operational capabilities for drought policy, monitoring, prediction and management in India.

Applications close 17/05/2018

Civil Society, risk and climate change: science, perception, communication and exchange

Wed 16 May 2018, 10:30 – 16:00
Location: UWE Bristol
Event organiser: ESRC Seminar Series CASCADE-NET
Event type: Seminar
Booking: Register online

The Centre for Water, Communities and Resilience and the Science Communication Unit at UWE together with Climate Outreach are pleased to announce a one day workshop exploring the interface between science communication, the arts and community resilience in the context of climate change and extreme weather.

For further information about the aims of CASCADE-NET see: http://www.cascade-net.com/aims/

Alison Tickell, CEO of Julie’s Bicycle will open the workshop with a Key Note relating her experiences working with creative industries on sustainability, and the opportunities for utilising their influential voices to reach new audiences on climate change.

She will be joined by speakers from academia and practice, including Sam Illingworth (Manchester Metropolitan University), Stuart Capstick (Cardiff University), Luci Gorell Barnes (Artist) Lyndsey Bakewell (Loughborough University), Corra Boushel (UWE) and Adam Corner (Climate Outreach).

The day will include a mix of provocative presentations followed by facilitated discussion exploring questions including:

1. What are the challenges and constraints of communicating about climate change and extreme weather (e.g. challenges of communicating complexity)

2. How might creative arts approaches be employed to open discussions about climate change and extreme weather? (use of case study examples to open discussion) (also how can these approaches help to overcome the challenges of communicating complex risks, like extreme weather)

3. How could arts, science and community work together to build resilience?

Spaces are limited and early booking is advised. Please sign up by Tuesday 8th May 2018.

Meet the Researchers: Drought Risk and You

Mon 30 April 2018, 10:00 – 12:30
Location: UWE Frenchay, BS16 1QY
Event organiser: UWE
Event type: Public open day
Booking: Register online

Join University of the West of England for a field trip with the researchers to discover the real-life effects of drought on our local grasslands, as part of Bristol Festival of Nature’s City Nature Challenge.

DRY project field site at UWE, copyright UWE
DRY project field site at UWE, copyright UWE

The Drought Risk and You project integrates physical science with social science and narrative to produce a decision making tool to help individuals and policy makers plan their response to drought.

Drought is a natural part of the UK climate but is predicted to become more frequent and severe in the future. Grasslands are by area the most important agricultural crop in the UK, and an essential feature of most parks and gardens.

You will learn about the experiments being done by UWE’s researchers as they look at the effects of drought on plants and pollinators, learn about the types of measurement they make and why, and see some of the preliminary results. You can also help the team by making your own survey transect across the field and submit your findings to Bristol Regional Environmental Records Centre.

Booking essential, details of where to meet and parking available on application.For more information please contact: dry@uwe.ac.uk

Please note: we will be meeting on UWE’s Frenchay campus and walking down to the research site through a rough woodland track. The track and fieldsite are not accessible for wheelchairs or pushchairs. Please dress appropriately for working outdoors.This event is suitable for adults and older children (10+).

UK-IWA Young Water Professionals Conference

16-18th April 2018
Location: Cranfield University
Event organiser: International Water Association (IWA)
Event type: Conference
Booking: Register online

Towards a Resilient Water Future

The UK-YWP is the best opportunity for young professionals working on the water to network, share skills, ideas and opportunities, and learn from each other. The Conference will have a mix of regular sessions, keynotes, PICO poster sessions, career fair, social and technical visits, and much more. Young Professionals from all sectors are welcome.

More information and online registration.