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 1970s

ANOTHER reorganisation in 1974 brought Darlington town force under the control of Durham. Darlington had an ultra-modern station just built on St Cuthbert’s Way, but it also had the county’s oldest engine: a 1951 Dennis with the registration PHN 999 (all Darlington engines used to have 999 on their numberplates).

Durham now had 483 uniformed men, 270 retained firefighters and 95 civilians, all of whom were pressed into action during the drought of 1976 when there was a 27 per cent increase in call-outs. In August alone, they attended 1,400 fires, mostly grass.

The following year is also well remembered: in 1977, with firefighters on strike, Durham was allocated 160 troops and 10 Green Goddess army engines which were stationed at drill halls in Durham, Darlington, Horden, Bishop Auckland and Stanley.

Probably the most remarkable fire of the decade occurred in August 1974 when Consett Distillation Works went up. It stored 3,000 45-gallon drums of solvent, and within 45 minutes of the call, 20 appliances were on scene, but firefighters had to run for cover as the drums exploded and rained down on them like mortar shells.

THE 1980s

ON August 27, 1981, south Durham’s largest post-war fire broke out at Thorn EMI at Spennymoor – “the Great Fire of Spennymoor” was The Northern Echo’s headline the following day – at 11.45am, forcing 1,700 workers to flee the “raging inferno”. The column of dense smoke could be seen 20 miles away, and about £8.5m of damage was done.

September 4, 1982, was one of the force’s saddest days when firefighters John Donley, 26, and Tony Hall, 24, were killed. Stationed at Peterlee, they were attending a chimney fire in South Hetton when, in wet conditions, their engine left the road and overturned into a deep ditch, trapping them beneath the wreckage.

The tragedy marked the engine of engines with fibreglass cabs – all new engines were to have reinforced steel cabs and ABS braking systems.

THE 1990s

BY 1993, the Durham brigade was responding to 12,000 calls a year, with more than 2,000 of them being malicious.

One of the county’s most spectacular fires occurred on June 26, 1993, when liquefied petroleum gas bottles at Burtree Caravans, on the edge of Darlington, created a Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapour Explosion. A mushroom cloud of smoke flame shot up high into the atmosphere, with one eye-witness telling the Echo: “It was just like an H-bomb.”

Firefighters were hampered by a lack of water so the caravan showroom and stock worth £2m were destroyed, and for days afterwards water in north Darlington homes was discoloured as sediment was dislodged from parts of the water network that were never normally touched.

On November 1, 1996, the force’s name was changed to the County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service – a name so long it could no longer sensibly displayed on appliances and so the force’s crest was used instead.

THE 2000s

FOR the first year since the force’s formation in 1948, 2005-06 didn’t see an accidental loss of life from fire in the brigade’s area.

But, on August 12, 2008, a blaze broke out in the King’s Head Hotel, Darlington. No one was killed, but 63 guests had to be evacuated, two of whom – an elderly, semi-paralysed couple from Canada – had to be rescued.

The blaze required 12 crews and two aerial ladders, and was the town’s largest since the war. It was more than three years before the hotel, built in 1893, could reopen.

THE 2010s

FORTUNATELY, no King’s Head sized fires to report from the current decade, just bureaucratic wrangles. A £12.4m joint headquarters for Durham, Teesside, Tyne & Wear and Northumberland forces had been completed at Belmont in 2008, but had stood empty as the Government tried to work whether to merge the forces. In the end, Durham alone moved in, enabling its Framwellgate Moor site to be redeveloped.

In September 2015, it’s £8m training centre at Bowburn – where tomorrow’s fun day is staged – opened, bringing the force right up to date.

It now has stations in Barnard Castle, Darlington, Consett, High Handenhold, Durham, Crook, Seaham, Peterlee, Wheatley Hill, Spennymoor, Sedgefield, Newton Aycliffe, Stanhope, Bishop Auckland and Middleton-in-Teesdale.

In 2012-13, the number of fires reached a record low of 2,496, although in 2016-17, it attended 3,164 fires, of which nearly a thousand were “primary” fires – the most serious. It received 2,234 false alarms of which 95 were malicious – 360 were from faulty alarms and 156 were cooking or burnt toast.

Durham and Darlington also had 3,766 “special service” call-outs, of which 3,428 were traffic accidents, which illustrates the changing nature of the service over the last 80 years although its role is still as vital as ever.

With thanks Craig Godwin. Much information from County Durham & Darlington Fire & Rescue Service: An Illustrated History By Ron Henderson (Tempus Publishing, 2007)

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