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!