Mom of three Emma Pritchard always has three items on hand – keys, phone and her alert. Usually there is a fourth as well. “You should always have a pair of thick socks on hand,” she smiles. “Otherwise your boots are going to rub.”
The socks have been a lifesaver in recent days. As a firefighter, the past week has had a hectic, insane whirl of smoke, heat, hurried meals and fleeting chats with hubby Dylan at their Porthmadog home.
Her warning sounds almost constant as reports come in of more wildfires on Gwynedd’s hills. In one day, his acting siren went off seven times – which can be difficult for someone who runs the Y Banc restaurant in Porthmadog.
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“The staff are very good, they pick up my work when I have to leave,” Emma, 30, said. “Since the warning siren is quite loud, you can sometimes hear eaters wondering if the fire alarm went off!”
The past week has been the busiest since Emma joined the North Wales Fire and Rescue Service (NWFRS) three years ago. Usually she would expect to respond to seven to 15 calls each month: in March just gone she was out 34 times. Sixteen of them were in the last week when it looked like half of Gwynedd’s mountains were on fire.
At first glance, firefighting obligations should reconcile with work and a busy home life, but Emma has found a balance. If she has to leave everything and find someone to look after her three children, aged nine, 10 and 14, she can knock on her in-laws: it helps that her father-in-law, Martin Pritchard, was previously guard manager at Porthmadog Fire Station.
The station is within sight of Emma’s house, meaning she’s running rather than driving when she responds to her belt-cut warning. Lately she has been running quite a lot.
“On some days I came home, said ‘hello’ to the family and then rushed straight back,” she said. “I did not go to bed for three days.”
Of the 11 major wildfire incidents declared by the fire department in late March, Emma was at eight of them. It was exhausting work. “We are fortunate in Porthmadog in that we have a Pinzgauer access device that allows us to use water lances on difficult terrain,” she said.
“But for most of the time, access to water is difficult and therefore it is the only option to put out the flames. In the heat, it is physically demanding, exacerbated by the sun that was out most of the week.
“It can be quite intense and you have to have eyes in the back of your head: fires can change direction quickly, and flames you just hit can suddenly flare up again.”
Emma was at Y Fron, Gwynedd, when NWFRS first asked for helicopter support from Natural Resources Wales, with whom he has a contract. “It made a big difference,” she said.
“I was down when it started to drop water on the hill. We would have been there for many hours without it. ”
Five appliances, two Pinzgauers and two off-road vehicles were sent to Y Fron – but worse would come that weekend. Paul Scott, senior fire safety manager at NWFRS, believes last Sunday was one of the organization’s busiest single days in recent years.
In the span of seven days, the service responded to 11 “significant” fires – incidents that required at least three devices – and it stretched resources in a way that was “completely preventable,” he said. He praised the professionalism of his staff, especially callers – those who have other jobs and family responsibilities, and who form a significant part of the firefighting front line.
As the region is predominantly rural, it is largely dependent on part-time firefighters who, when alerted, have only minutes to report for duty. Of the 44 fire stations in North Wales, 36 are unmanned and rely on callers.
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“They may have worked an eight-hour day before they got the call to go out again,” Mr Scott said. “They can be managers, farmers, factory workers, parents and the self-employed.
“I have seen these people at three or four of the recent fires I have attended and it can be exhausting work. We had to exchange them (with replacement teams) and send them home to get some sleep. During such incidents, we regularly rotate teams to ensure their well-being.
“This poses major logistical challenges for the control room. Behind the images of fire and smoke that people see on their screens are backroom teams trying to sort out coverage for these major wildfires while also ensuring that daily coverage for road traffic accidents, house fires and so on is provided. ”
It was graphically illustrated last Sunday afternoon during a seven-hour period when three severe wildfires took place simultaneously in South Gwynedd and Conwy. The largest was a fire in Tanygrisiau that involved 10 devices and three “special” off-road vehicles transporting water and high-pressure lances.
Five more devices and two specials were also needed in Trawsfynnydd, while three devices and a special were sent to Llyn Elsi, Betws y Coed.
“These three incidents tied up 18 devices and six special offers,” Paul said. “At the same time, two teams were also needed in a kitchen fire in Wrexham.
“To ensure continuous coverage of the region, the control room has moved devices from area to area. It was because of their professionalism that we still had pumps available in all parts of the region. ”
A week of severe veld fires
- Y Fron, Gwynedd (Wednesday 23 March) – A helicopter, five devices, two Pinzgauers and two off-road vehicles.
- Llyn Celyn (Fri, 25 Mar) – Eight devices, one off-road vehicle, one incident command unit and one helicopter.
- Rhiw, Gwynedd (Saturday 26 March) – three appliances and one off-road vehicle.
- Mynydd Nefyn (Saturday 26 March) – three appliances, three Pinzgauer appliances and one field fire unit.
- Tanygrisiau (Sun, March 27) – 10 devices, two off-road vehicles, one off-road vehicle and one incident command unit.
- Trawsfynydd (Sun, March 27) – five devices, one off-road vehicle and one off-road vehicle.
- Llyn Elsi, Betws y Coed (Sun, 27 March) – three devices.
- Ty Newydd, Cwm Ystradllyn, Gwynedd (Sunday 27 March) – one appliance, one off-road vehicle and one Pinzgauer.
- Maentwrog / Llandecwyn area (Mon, 28 Mar) – Six devices and one incident command unit.
- Maentwrog (Mon, March 28) – Six devices and one incident command.
- Aberdeunant, Gwynedd (Mon, 28 Mar) – 10 devices.
- Llandecwyn, Gwynedd (Dis, March 29) – eight devices and two narrow access vehicles.
Concerns about controlled combustion
Between 08:00 on Friday (March 25) and 20:00 on Sunday (March 27), control room staff handled 364 calls, of which 31 were grass fires. Proud of their efforts, however, were colored with frustration, knowing that some calls were unnecessary and very unavoidable. Arson was suspected at Tanygrisiau, but most of the fires were presumably caused by controlled burns that got out of hand.
During the winter, farmers and landowners are allowed to use fire to remove heather and heather vegetation, freeing up the land for grazing or conservation. Occasionally, the practice is used to reduce fuel loads on mountains in the event of an uncontrolled fire caused by, for example, lightning or discarded cigarettes.
Anyone undertaking a controlled fire must abide by the Heather and Grass Brand Code. This involves giving at least 24 hours notice of a fire, having enough people and equipment in place and drawing up a Fire Management Plan. Here are more details on what controlled combustion entails.
Years of messages by the fire department have improved compliance, but there is still an element that transforms the rules. This year, during the late March period of dry weather, there may also have been a last-minute rush to highlight heathlands before the March 31 deadline, after which it becomes an offense.
While the fire department believes in education rather than enforcement, the recent spate of wildfires has stretched its patience to the limit. “Binding our resources to a wildfire can have an impact on our ability to respond quickly to other emergencies,” Paul said.
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The fire service cannot prosecute, but does work with the police and its arson reduction team to identify problem areas. A number of Facebook users have suggested that offenders be charged with wildfires.
Others want the practice to be completely banned. One person said: “Seeing how the fires in Beddgelert threatened homes last spring was so frightening – how can they keep getting away to endanger lives?”
Come join us
Despite her dedication to being a firefighter, Emma loves every minute of it. Sometimes it can be hot, tough and uncomfortable, but that’s not typical of the job and Emma was fascinated by the camaraderie and professionalism of her colleagues.
“Sometimes the adrenaline kicks in, but there’s always the feeling of a well-done job,” she said. “Everyone looks at each other, we have good PPE and we are all really proud of what we do.
“It is a job that anyone can do, regardless of background or gender. I enjoy it a lot. Every day is different and you never know what you are going to do.
“A lot of the work involves home security visits such as setting up a smoke alarm. I actually get more satisfaction from it than tackling a mountain fire, because I know I helped keep someone safe. ”
- Because the role of contemporary firefighters is so diverse, NWFRS is looking for people from a diverse range of backgrounds. Not only women, still under-represented in the service, but also people from LGBTQ +, black and ethnic minorities. Welsh speakers and learners are also in demand. Compensation is available. To find out more, visit the NWFRS Recruitment Page.
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