A major blaze at Mayhew's, Five Ash Down

Uckfield’s fire fighting history: Great Gale devastation

Uckfield fire station watch manager Ian Ritchie continues his history of the town’s fire brigade for UckfieldNews.com. This segment takes us from 1985 to 1996 and includes the Great Gale of 1987.

Success came for Uckfield firefighters in 1985 in a national competition.

While Uckfield’s crews did well in competition drills, as previously mentioned, the retained staff were also regularly successful in the ‘Technical Knowledge’ quiz competition.

In 1985, having won the Brigade and area finals, the team went to London Fire Brigade HQ at Lambeth, for the district final where they finished  a creditable third and only just missed out on a place in the national final.

Quiz team 1985

1985 Quiz Team: Chris Hazelden, Ian Ritchie, Robin Miller, Bruce Davy, Robin Broadbridge.

The Great Storm of October 16, 1987, saw crews from Uckfield attend numerous calls as the hurricane wreaked havoc across the county.

The station’s rescue tender became trapped itself as its crew attempted to find unblocked roads to get to incidents.

With trees continuing to fall, the vehicle’s route back to the station became blocked until the arrival of a chainsaw gang.

When the Uckfield bypass opened in 1986, some drivers appeared to think that it was a dual carriageway and a large number of serious accidents occurred in the first few years due to ill-advised overtaking manoeuvres.

The most serious was on February 27, 1989, when Uckfield’s firefighters were sent to a collision involving a lorry and three cars. The damage to the cars was so severe that two of them had locked together making the rescue of the occupants difficult and slow.

Damage to the third car was such that the driver was trapped upside down with petrol leaking.

The fuel tank was removed before the twisted wreckage could be dismantled to free the occupant. Tragically, one passenger had died instantly and all three people rescued by the fire service later died from their injuries.

In 1990 Tony Colwell took over as Station Commander.

However, his stay was brief and he was followed by numerous temporary postings until Peter Cox arrived in 1991.

Uckfield now had its first firewoman and soon after her arrival the ‘politically correct’ term of Firefighter was introduced nationally.

The embarrassing lack of facilities combined with the ever increasing size of fire appliances meant that the hunt for a new station site became urgent.

1991 Keld Avenue

Uckfield Fire Station 1991

November, 1991, Mayhew Chicken processing factory in Five Ash Down suffered several serious fires in the nineties.

At the first incident, shortly after the arrival of the first crews, a flashover occurred injuring one firefighter. A towering column of thick black smoke could be seen from ten miles away.

This incident had a major influence upon firefighter safety due to the discovery of insulating ‘sandwich panels’ through which the fire spread rapidly, unseen but burning at extremely high temperatures.

Twelve appliances with 60 firefighters from across East Sussex and from Kent were used to contain the fire to the original building.

The firm were able to restart a limited production within a few days.

Further serious fires in a large workshop and a vast commercial freezer occurred before, another major fire broke out, on April 4, 1996, at the Mayhew’s plant and again involved sandwich insulation panels. The company recovered again to continue production for years to come.

1996 mayhews chicken

1996 Thick black smoke billows from the Mayhew’s factory

July 19, 1996, saw the last major fire to be attended from the Keld Avenue station when crews from the town attended a blaze which devastated a large part of Lewes’s historic Cliffe High Street.

With Peter Cameron-Waller now in charge, a site for a new fire station was eventually identified in Bell Farm Road and in early 1996 the current era began with a ceremonial ‘turning of the sod’.

Turning the sod 1995

Station Officer Peter Cameron-Waller (left) oversees the ‘ceremony’ undertaken by Chief Fire Officer Alan McCormack, councillors and representatives from Sunninghill Construction who were awarded the £950,000 contract to provide Uckfield with a modern fire station to replace the one that had served the town so well for nearly 60 years.

Previously on UckfieldNews.com:

History of firefighting in Uckfield, part one

Firemen get a horse drawn steamer

World War Two and the fire service

From World War Two to 1974

Firefighting from 1974 to 1985

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