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

About Drought Download Nov 7th

All the data, all the learnings, all the resources, all in one place!

Thursday, November 7, 2019  10am-3.30pm 

Location: The Royal Society, London SW1Y 5AG

Registration: info@aboutdrought.info

About Drought Download is the final event of the 5-year UK Drought and Water Scarcity Research Programme, showcasing the difference our work is already making. Register your interest by emailing the project office at info@AboutDrought.info

The event is aimed at decision-makers in water supply, the energy industry, policy, business, environment, agriculture or the public sector with an accessible, stimulating programme, offering  engagement with hands on multi-disciplinary programme outputs, as well as being able to listen to and question programme experts in a wide range of drought-related fields, network with people in the drought faculty (researchers and managers), and engage first-hand with users of the outputs from the programme.

  • How is climate change affecting water supply in the UK?
  • What does it mean for policy and industry?
  • What forecasting breakthroughs have been made & how are these already being used?
  • How can we protect the UK’s natural landscape from water shortage?

DRY (Drought Risk & You) Final Conference July 3rd

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2019

Location: UWE Bristol Exhibition and Conference Centre, Filton Rd, Stoke Gifford, Bristol BS34 8QZ

Register: Click here

Interdisciplinary explorations in ‘DRY Thinking’ – bringing together stories and science for better decision-making in UK Drought Risk Management

Come and join the ongoing conversation at the final event for DRY (Drought Risk & You) part of About Drought, the UK’s £12m drought and water scarcity research programme.

Drought in the UK is a pervasive, creeping and hidden risk.  How can ‘the hidden’ be revealed and how can science and stories work together, in this process, to support better decision-making in UK drought risk management?

This conference is the next stage in an ongoing dialogue, not only between different disciplines, but also but between researchers and stakeholders.

Over the past five years, DRY has worked with diverse sectors in seven catchments in England, Scotland and Wales – co-researching droughts past and scenario-ing droughts future, with strong attention to thinking about adaptive solutions and behaviours. DRY has explored how science and narrative can be brought together, in different ways and on different scales, to support statutory and non-statutory decision-making of a wide range of stakeholders, the general public and communities.

Core to this research has been a series of ‘creative experiments’, exploring how science can be used as a stimulus for stories and stories as a stimulus for science.  This has included creative scenario-ing of possible drought futures and explorations in how drought might be visualised using science interweaved with storying.

DRY’s interdisciplinary team has involved drought risk scientists (hydrologists, ecologists, agronomists) working with hazard geographers, social science researchers in health and business, along with those working in media and memory, and applied storytelling.

This conference shares themes researched within the DRY project, including how we might:

  • Rethink ‘drought data’ – its hybridity and variations in scale
  • Explore drought values and perceptions that influence behaviours
  • Scenario future drought working with science and narrative
  • Exploring drought cultures within the UK
  • Develop ‘DRY Thinking’ as a process – Drought Risk and You

The conference will be accompanied by the DRY Exhibition, showcasing resources generated by the DRY process, including the DRY Story Bank, the DRY Utility and DRY Action Learning Resources (e.g. around UK Drought Myths in engagement).

Organised by Professor Lindsey McEwen (UWE, Bristol), Emma Weitkamp (UWE, Bristol), Joanne Garde-Hansen (University of Warwick), Antonia Liguori (Loughborough University), Mike Wilson (Loughborough University) and the DRY consortium

For any further information, please email: DRY@uwe.ac.uk

Drought and public water supply

Tuesday 2 July 2019
Location: Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford
Online registration: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/drought-exchanges-water-supply-registration-63381974191

DROUGHT Exchanges: Water Supply

We invite you to attend this free event to hear about the datasets and findings of the UK Droughts and Water Scarcity research programme that specifically focus on public water supply and the water industry. This event will be of interest to all those involved in managing water resources, from water companies, regulators, consultancies, researchers, and many others.

This workshop follows one held in October 2018, and has the objective of raising awareness of the national and regional datasets available now and forthcoming, report on progress with the research and feedback at the October event, and gain insights on the water industry’s specific needs so we can shape the final outputs. We are very keen that this is a participatory, two way exchange and hope to have your contribution and insights on what data and outputs are of use to your work. You do not need to have attended the October workshop to come to this event in July.

By attending this event, you can:

  • Hear about the programme of research examining the effects of drought and water scarcity in the UK
  • Learn about the datasets, information and findings arising from the research programme, with a specific focus on information of relevance or of interest to public water supply
  • View ‘drought libraries’ that integrate new historical and future hydroclimatic datasets, for stress-testing water supply systems
  • Find out about the hydrological modelling undertaken in the Drought and Water Scarcity programme, and datasets arising, free to use
  • Hear about the latest developments in national-scale risk-based water supply modelling
  • Interact with new prototype real-time drought monitoring and early warning systems
  • Share your work, information and decision-support needs in relation to drought and water scarcity
  • Meet others interested in this subject
  • Discuss the current and forthcoming findings and outputs to ensure its suitability and usefulness for practitioners and regulators in the public

Groundwater supply during droughts workshop

Monday 1 July 2019
Location: Priory Rooms, Birmingham
Registration: Online registration

Aims of the workshop

Groundwater supply during droughts: image of draft programme
Groundwater supply during droughts: draft programme

As part of the UK Drought and Water Scarcity Programme funded by NERC, we are planning a one-day workshop for groundwater professionals with an interest in water supply. The workshop will be held at the Priory Rooms in Birmingham on Monday 1 July. The aim of the workshop is to generate evidence and take guidance from the community for the production of two outputs. The first output will be a short policy brief on groundwater drought planning and management in the UK, similar in form to the Houses of Parliament POSTnotes series. The second output will be a longer commentary-style article for the peer-reviewed literature on the current state-of-the-art related to groundwater drought planning and management practices and an assessment of future applied research directions and requirements.

Context

We believe that opportunity to reflect on the status of the UK’s current groundwater drought planning and management practices and on future research needs is timely given a range of recent government and industry initiatives. Reducing the risk of harm to people, the environment and the economy from natural hazards, including drought, is one of the core goals of the Governments’ 25 year plan to improve the environment that was published last year. In England, water supply companies are just completing revisions to their Water Resource Management Plans and Drought Plans and will soon be preparing for the next planning cycle. In addition, over the last couple of years there have been a number of significant technical developments, for example publication of the UKWIR Drought Vulnerability Framework in late 2017; outputs from the NERC-funded UK Drought and Water Scarcity Programme, and the opportunities offered by the publication of the UKCP18 data.

Audience

We envisage that the workshop will be of interest to a wide range of groundwater and water resource professionals. Such as water company hydrogeologists responsible for groundwater aspects of drought management planning and operational water resource issues (e.g. groundwater resource situation reporting and forecasting); environmental regulators with responsibilities for groundwater resources, such as Environment Agency staff; and, consultants and academics with an interest in groundwater supply and drought.

Registration

Registration for the workshop is online and will be on a first-come, first-served basis. Please note places are limited so early registration is encouraged. The draft programme is available to download.
Workshop convenors: Matt Ascott, John Bloomfield and Rob Ward (British Geological Survey)

Contact: Matt Ascott at British Geological Survey email: matta@bgs.ac.uk phone: 01491 69 2408

Draft programme

The draft programme is available as a PDF download: draft programme.