The year of the long hot summer

1976: the year of the long hot summer: The downside, however, were thousands of calls to the fire brigade and police reporting fires on commons throughout the county. Both services were working to full capacity and in many instances extra help was provided by the military, which used bulldozers and diggers to form firebreaks. The long hot summer of 1976 was a challenging time.

The drought and hot weather brought a great many severe fires on the hills and heaths of Surrey. The demands on the Fire Service were so severe that they would only attend an incident if lives were in danger or if houses were imminently threatened. Covering such a vast area of woodland and open spaces on the sub-division the police would attend any reported fire and watch to see what, if anything, was threatened.

Sometimes the Brigade would attend but the crew would be from the other side of the county, as they had no one else left. A particular fire late in the day resulted in a fire engine coming all the way from Caterham to the top of Pitch Hill.

A major problem with the fires was the peat. If it caught fire, peat would smoulder for days if not weeks. The fire went deep into the ground and was virtually impossible to put out, and with a strong breeze would again burst into life.

The village of Thursley close to Hankley was nearly destroyed by fire one afternoon during the drought. As the flames lapped across the heath-land and up to the edge of this very prosperous village with its large houses surrounded by the trees, the army arrived with huge earthmovers carrying bulldozers. Soldiers saved the day by driving the bulldozers straight off the back of the low-loaders and immediately towards the flames, cutting a fire break and stopping the every advancing wall of flame and smoke towards the houses. Very dramatic and not a little exciting except if it was your house!

Tony Forward: I was chief inspector at Camberley when there were heath fires all over the sub-division. The A322 Guildford to Bracknell Road had to be closed after flames jumped fifty two feet across it to trees on the other side.

Berkshire Fire Brigade had the services of an RAF helicopter that landed on Swindley's roundabout and went up every hour to see what was between the current fire-front and where it was expected to be in one hour. People, animals and vehicles were then removed from that area. Inspector Chris Rogers from Chertsey Traffic Centre was in charge of road closures and diversions. He and I flew in the helicopter on some of its missions. Rogers, keen for promotion, always sat well inside while I sat in the open doorway. I was sure that I could feel his feet pushing my back!

Camberley was part of Farnham Division, commanded by Chief Superintendent Frank Trussler. He and I were at Deepcut Barracks when flames were getting close to the houses at the rear of the officers' married quarters. We knocked on all the doors and got the occupants to go to the Officer's Mess for safety.

At one house, there was clean washing including babies' nappies on the line in the back garden. Nobody was in. The washing was getting dirty from the smuts in the air so I collected it and put it in the garden shed, where I found six Surrey Constabulary 'no waiting' cones! They were delivered anonymously to Camberley Police Station the next day.

On one of the days, six PCs and I were using fire beaters to beat out flames alongside the A322 north of Bagshot. We had our jackets, ties and hats off and our faces were blackened from the ashes.

A mobile refreshment van, normally doing trade in a lay-by on that road at Bagshot but now had no passing trade because the road was closed, pulled up beside us. We all had refreshing cold drinks and when I offered to pay, the driver said, "You firemen can have them on me, you are doing a good job. I'll make the police pay; the bastards shut the road off!"

Tony May: 1975 and 1976 were renowned for their lack of rainfall resulting in the late summer (July/August ) of 1976 being known as the' big drought'. Temperatures exceeded 90°F on six or seven days consecutively and the ground was tinder dry. Thick white and grey smoke lazily ascending into a steel blue sky just before midday signalled yet another common fire. West Surrey bore the brunt of these outbreaks.

I was Section Sergeant at Haslemere with Sergeant John Stone, Sergeant John Boyes at Hindhead and Sergeant Colin White at Milford and we were responsible for the vast swathes of Hindhead, Thursley, Milford and Witley Commons mostly owned by the National Trust. Guildford Fire Brigade had its own problems with Wisley, Woking with Chobham, and Farnham with Frensham and Crooksbury Commons. There was also little help from Hampshire (Bramshott Common) and West Sussex (Woolbeding Commons)

So it was the two engine retained Fire Brigade at Haslemere and the one engine part time Brigade at Godalming which shouldered responsibility. As a fire engine carries little water on it's own it was down to beating most the fires out by hand.

There is no doubt that many of these fires were started deliberately, small groups of children innocently playing would appear but it was difficult to pin them down unless caught red handed with matches. The National Trust's feeble attempt at fire precautions was in one or two specific locations to place a couple of poles with a cross section at one end on which was tacked a flap with which to beat out the flames. These were entirely useless as they were so old they immediately fell to bits. The most common thing was to use a dead tree branch which was just as effective.

Our main priority was the free passage of traffic but on occasions, roads like the A3 had to be closed because of burning verges or zero visibility through the smoke. Dye House Lane in Thursley was a typical example; this dips and twists through the hamlet of Thursley towards Churt and was constantly encircled by fires.

The heath-land with its mainly heather, birch and spruce saplings was fairly easy to contain although the damage to wildlife (snakes, lizards, birds and rodents) was horrifying but when the fires spread to the blocks of coniferous pines it was reminiscent of the fires in South Australia and Western USA. A tree could be engulfed in seconds and it spread fanned by the wind at terrifying speeds.

Thursley Common was used as a base camp for the Canadian Forces in World War Two and traces of it can still be found there. One incident which I still recall and send a shiver down me was when I foolishly drove deep into Thursley Common and found myself on the vast concrete parade square, suddenly I was trapped, and fire was advancing on three sides including the way I had come in. I knew that if I remained in the middle I would be unharmed (concrete doesn't burn) but it was some time before it was safe to drive rubber tyres back over red hot ground to safety. I eventually emerged half suffocated from smoke with my uniform reeking of it.

In early September the Government appointed Denis Howell as the Minister for Drought, the day after this it rained and didn't stop for several weeks and that ended it.

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