Wednesday, 4 May 2011

THE POWER OF FIRE

Seeing the headlines this morning about the heath fires breaking out all over the UK was a bit of a 'blast from the past' for me, as there was a time in my life when I had a much closer acquaintance with fire than I'd have chosen.

Back in the late 1950s I was in the Womens Royal Army Corps and my last fifteen months of the three year 'stretch' I'd signed up for was not the happiest part of that experience.  Having come from a small female unit based at The Royal Military College of Science at Shrivenham in Wiltshire, where we (50 or so) females had the pride of place in an otherwise all-male establishment - about 2000 officers and men, it was something of a shock to be on a small isolated patch of ground at Liphook in Hants without a man in sight.

This in itself produced some odd aberrations both of habit and lifestyle - but that's another story - and we as a unit, lacking outside contact to any usefull degree became close-knit and inter-dependant.  As the unit librarian I had the rare privilege of having my own work-space and a degree of privacy not afforded to most of the unit, and while this was in some ways liberating it also bread  in me a liking for my own company which has only since the death of my husband deserted me.

There were plenty of social activities on the camp but if we wanted other company we had to walk (quite a few miles) to the NAAFI down the A3 and back later, so not a daily occurrence.  We were all young and pretty fit.  Square-bashing (parade-ground exercises for those not familiar with the term) and enforced gym exercises were daily routine and many of us also ran or walked in our off-duty time.  This in the absence of other distractions made us a very athletic and healthy (at least physically) group of girls.

At that time, I've never been back since so have no idea whether it is still true, the area, near the Devil's Punchbowl and the Portsmouth Road were very heavily wooded.  The camp was close to the road-side and consisted in the main of old (world war 1) corrugated iron Nissan huts and a few wooden Spider huts.
They were well fitted in terms of bathrooms and the like, but pretty primitive as far as civilised living was concerned.  In Winter we had coke  burning fires in all the rooms and in Summer we roasted under the metal roofs.

The Spring of 1957 was dry and unusually warm and the road-side verges were tinder-box dry.  Everywhere there were notices about cigarettes and their safe disposal (we all smoked like chimneys in those days), and there were fire buckets hanging every few yards about the camp.

At a certain stage in April we started to have fire drills on a daily basis.  We all found them repititious, time-consuming and boring but had no choice in the matter.  No-one had been at this camp long enough to have had any experience of the real thing so were not unduly perturbed by all this activity.

The first night the fire alarm went off we all thought it was an exercise but piled into greatcoats and boots and staggered out to the parade-ground as per instructions expecting to be allowed back to bed  in a minute or two.  So the bright orange glare of flames was something of a shock.  We were lined up and the buckets filled handed down the chain and returned to be refilled as we had been trained.  After a short while the fires were extinguished the verges damped down and we went back to bed.

Done and dusted we thought.  Not so bad really.  What was all the fuss about?

As I said, that was in April.  In May, it had still not rained, the weather was hot dry and worst of all very windy, perfect conditions for heath fires.

Now we were sleeping a little more uneasily, one eye open you might say.

Then there was the night when the alarm sounded again.  This time there was more of a sense of urgency about the proceedings and the flames along the road-side were further reaching and much taller, the crackling of the undergrowth as it was consumed by flame and the heat given off were rather alarming.  We talked less this time and there was a far greater sense of seriousness in the air.  Eventually, however we all returned to bed.  Job done.

Still no rain, hotter, drier and concerns about our situation being spoken of openly now, we had yet another call-out.  This night the flames were all along the far side of the road opposite the camp and it took much longer to make any impression on them.  Hot dirty worried and tired we were just about to be stood down when there was a sudden whoosh and the most frightening moment of my life I saw the flames leap the road and suddenly they were on our side and heading toward the camp.

It was a very long very frightening very tiring night when at any moment we could have found the camp burning.  Luckily for us the wind dropped and we were able to subdue the fires and spent much of the next day soaking the roadside verges in anticipation of worse.  Fortunately for us we had a huge thunder-storm that day and the first of several downpours solved our problem for us.

Many years later, I heard a radio news broadcast about a fire in that area and apparently the long empty camp had burned to the ground.  There, but for the grace of god!

12 comments:

  1. Ray, what a vivid and interesting glimpse into your earlier life! Those must have been very tense and uncomfortable weeks for you, but you had all obviously been very well-trained. Just think how long it took after your experience before women were allowed to become fire-fighters.

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  2. What a tale you have to tell- keep going with more, I love reading your blog.
    Here in North Yorkshire we need rain very much. Have had none to speak of for 8 weeks now. The water butts are all empty, I have started putting washing up water on the garden, and my Rocket crop is only 3 ins high-usually I would be collecting seeds from the first flush and re sowing.So Praying for rain.

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  3. We've had a fire on the moors near here and the main road had to be cordoned off for a while. You must have been very brave to cope with all that you did. I also heard today that groups of youths have been spotted setting fires on moorland further south of here - how wantonly stupid and dangerous.

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  4. Perpetua
    Yes it was a 'before its time' type of experience but we were there, the fires happened and there was no alternative means of staying safe.

    Margaret
    Thankyou for the compliment, much appreciated.
    Yes we too have had no rain apart from the 'wedding day street party' thunderstorm, for about 7 weeks now. I am guiltily using the hose every evening at present to prevent the loss of some quite rare shrubs.

    Freda
    I don't think it was a question of bravery, just that in the army you obey orders first, then ask questions later. We had no choice in the matter. It was long before "Health and Safety" appeared on the scene and it was a case of put out the fire or let the camp (and possibly us) burn.

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  5. WOW what an interesting post - I love reading and hearing people's stories and yours was indeed very interesting.

    I was interested/sadden by your comment "bread in me a liking for my own company which has only since the death of my husband deserted me" May I ask is this because 'your own company' has been forced upon you due to the death of your husband whereas before it someways it was a choice? ps: if you would rather not answer I fully understand.

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  6. Judy
    Glad you found this bit of my history interesting.
    As to the other matter. Yes it is indeed because I no longer choose to be alone but have to live with the fact that at my age that is how it's going to be from now on.
    Having no family doesn't help, but at least I have good neighbours.
    Please, shed no tears on my account, but if and when you feel like it a prayer would be a kind thought.

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  7. Thank you Ray for replying. Your comment reminded me of my dissertaton prep last year.

    My theme was 'older people's concept of Spirituality' and I had individual and group interviews with some of the residents where I take a weekly service. I spoke with four ladies aged between 80-90 and during the course of the conversation your line of thought came up and it became apparent that holding a coffee morning at 2.am would be more helpful rather than 10am :) because during the day the ladies could speak to people but it's when the last phone call has been made and received and it gets to the early hours of the morning that isolation sets in.

    I will indeed uphold you in prayer - each day I try and light a small candle and remember people in prayer - today it's lit for you.

    Take care, lots of love, Judyx

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  8. Here in Southern California, USA we are plagued with brush fires from June to October. Many lives and property are lost every year :-(

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  9. Hi Ron
    Yes I know your part of the world is unlucky in that respect. I wish it could be otherwise, but unfortunately our technological advances have so far failed to prevent 'natural' disasters. (Though one wonders if they've tried)

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  10. Thanks for the link. I will be one of your regular visiitors. Very interesting piece about the fire fighting. It's good to remind people that us old ladies have seen extra ordinary things in our life time. Not just knitters of socks.

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  11. Hi Jean and Welcome

    In my case, not even knitters of socks, but I do know waht you mean!

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