SUNDAY is the 70th anniversary of the formation of the Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service which, when life was simpler, was called the fire brigade.

The service is celebrating its birthday with an Easter Sunday open day which runs from 10.30am to 3pm at its Bowburn training centre, on the edge of Durham. There will be firefighting displays, an aerial ladder platform, vintage fire appliances and, best of all, a fire engine Easter egg hunt.

The service came into being on April 1, 1948, in the aftermath of the Second World War. Before the war, the fire service had been piecemeal, with towns and industries running their own brigades –Crook Mines Rescue Brigade seems to have been extremely important, rushing from its mining heartland to help anywhere in an emergency.

The Blitz of the early days of the war required a more co-ordinated response and so in August 1941, the Government effectively nationalised the 1,600 local fire brigades to create the National Fire Service which was controlled from London.

In peacetime, control was returned to local areas. Darlington, South Shields, Sunderland, West Hartlepool and Gateshead all opted to have their own, council-run brigades, but the 921,000 people living in the rest of Durham were to be served by one force, based in Chester-le-Street.

Durham had 27 fire stations, 332 full-time officers, 328 retained men and one turntable ladder which was based at Stockton. A national inventory to discover what appliances the nation possessed resulted in a spare turntable ladder being sent up from Exeter to boost Durham’s resources.

And that really is the history of the last 70 years: a constant but slow upgrading and renewing of stations and appliances as funding has become available. And fighting some blooming big fires…

THE 1940s

IN its first year, the Durham brigade tackled 1,038 fires, although it had to contend with 41 malicious false call-outs – it received its first just 18 days after its formation.

Just after its first anniversary, it was called to probably the biggest fire in its history – it was so big the Home Secretary came up from London to watch it blaze.

Firefighters were called to a timber yard by the coast at Seaton Carew at 8.37pm on April 27, 1949, and it wasn’t until 3.16am on April 29 that the blaze was officially designated “under control”. First of all, water from a nearby beck was pumped onto the flames but it exploded, showering the men with a hot bituminous substance. It transpired that the beck was polluted with flammable waste from a factory and every West Hartlepool fireman was hospitalised by burns or damage to eyes.

So they turned to the inexhaustible North Sea and stationed 40 pumps on the beach, moving up and down as the tide came and went. Aided by 1,000 soldiers, they gradually turned the tide on the fire, but it was such a tough battle that after 12 continuous hours, the West Hartlepool Chief Fire Officer collapsed from exhaustion.

After more than 30 hours, the flames were under control, and after more than 40 hours, Home Secretary Chute Ede turned up to have a look at the scene.

About £500,000 worth of timber was burned (about £17m in today’s values), but two-thirds of the site – 40 acres – were saved.

The Durham force counted up its losses, and discovered it was short of 102 lengths of hose, 15 branch pipes, 11 spades and 12 teaspoons.

THE 1950s

GRADUAL improvement of equipment and premises was the order of the decade, culminating in the opening of the new headquarters at Framwellgate Moor on October 30, 1957.

In 1954-55, 17 lives were lost to fire in the county – 13 more than the previous year, and then came the terrific explosion and fire at the Bakelite factory at Aycliffe, when a new resin product blew up at 4am, hurling large lumps of factory about and shattering windows in Heighington and Redworth. Ten workers were hospitalised, but all eventually recovered.

It wasn’t just people who needed rescuing. In 1957, a dog was rescued from an 80ft deep mineshaft at Edmundbyers and another was saved halfway down the 100ft cliffs at Seaham. There was a call out to a swarm of bees besieging a council offices and three people needed removing after they trapped their fingers in windows.

THE 1960s

IN November 1962, the brigade log notes that it was called unusually by police to assist with rescue operations when a tanker carrying sulphuric acid overturned near Horden – traffic accidents are now a staple part of the rescue service’s operations.

A December 1962 entry is one of the most heartbreaking: as Christmas Day was nearing its end, three young sisters were killed when fire consumed their wooden bungalow at Finchale Caravan Park – the children’s mother and their 17-month-old sister escaped.

In 1967, local government changes meant that the Durham force lost all of Hartlepool and then in 1968, Teesside was created taking away Norton, which had been the county’s busiest fire station. Still Durham protected a population of 825,000.

A big change in 1969 was the removal of sirens from stations. These wailed as if an air raid was expected, and summoned firefighters from their homes.

In the days before every pocket had a phone, people would run to the station to raise the alarm, and at the part-time Ferryhill station there was a sign on the wall beside the siren switch reading: “In case of fire operate switch for 30 seconds and wait to inform firemen of location of fire.”

But from 1969, Durham firemen were given bleepers and the sirens, hated by ordinary sleepers, were withdrawn. The bleepers meant firemen no longer had to live within hearing distance of a station.

The decade ended with Durham City’s biggest fire: on May 5, 1969, Hugh Mackay’s carpet factory beneath New Elvet Bridge. The blaze broke out at 2am in a bin containing jute shuttles, and was brought under control at 5.24am, but damage was estimated at £500,000.

* CELEBRATE the Durham & Darlington Fire & Rescue Service’s 70th birthday on Sunday at an Easter Funday at its training centre on the Bowburn Industrial Estate, DH6 5AD, from 10.30am to 3pm. There will be an egg hunt, firefighting displays, vintage vehicles, Scrappy and Woodie the firedogs, fairground rides and a smoke house simulator