The Kelsey Park Fire

By Brian Burgess 

Foreword: During the national fire strike of Nov 1977-Jan 1978, fire cover was provided by the Army, Navy and the RAF.  'Operation BURBERRY', as it was named used the Green Goddesses, that were then in storage, to provide this vital service.  The following account would be even more amusing if it wasn't so very serious. Let Brian's words assist your imagination....Ed.

The great Kelsey Park allotment fire of January 1978…….

It was our first shift at Service Fire Station 10, Bromley, Kent and we were all excited about what might happen over the next twelve hours. After taking over from the day shift and checking the pump over, we were placed on ‘first response’. A call then came in around 7pm, an allotment was ablaze off Wickham Road, Beckenham Junction; this was it!

Here I am on the right!

We raced out to 163 and I fired her up, the crew piled in and off we went following our Police escort who was there to guide us to the fire location using his specialist local knowledge. On leaving the Territorial Army Centre, the Police BSA Bantam turned left. Now this was new territory to us as previous training runs had taken us right into Bromley Town Centre. So therefore the steep hill, we immediately started to hurtle down, took me by surprise and concentrated the mind somewhat.  Previous trips in 163 had shown her to be quite responsive, if slow, steering well, but seemingly reluctant to stop……

We gathered speed rapidly with 300 gallons of water and six crew on board in addition to the 5½ ton tare weight!!! As we neared the bottom of the hill, we could see a roundabout and lights with a railway station over a bridge (Shortlands?) and the Bantam rider looking anxiously at our rapid and slightly uncontrolled approach.  Fortunately his police training kicked in on seeing fear in the six pale faces staring out of the cab and he stopped all traffic enabling us to hurtle across the junction.

The crew chief who had been furiously, and with great relish, sounding the fire bell, was now gripping the dashboard with both hands, and there was no sound from the previously talkative crew on the back seat!!!

The police escort then threaded us through some suburban streets and we emerged onto a track leading down to the allotments which were adjacent to Kelsey Park. We could see ahead, right in the middle of the plots, a pile of straw bales that were well alight. 

No one was around and we made straight for the fire. The training then kicked in as I put in the Power Take Off and raced around the back of the machine to start pumping, the nearest first aid reel was being run out and soon a jet of water was playing on the fire. Now it soon become apparent that the water we carried would not quite suffice for the job, and so the crew chief instructed two crew members to track back to the nearest street and get connected to mains water.

Once connected, a hose was then attached and I put 100psi through the hose….unfortunately, due to our inexperience, a jet nozzle had been fitted to the branch and as the solid jet of water hit the bales, it blew burning straw for yards. Some bits of burning straw landed on creosoted potting sheds and tool huts and very soon the allotment looked as though the Luftwaffe had flown over and dropped a load of incendiaries. 

The mistake was quickly corrected with a diffuser being fitted and a fine spray used. Another hose was coupled up and the fires were quickly extinguished.

By this time the allotment owners began arriving and were full of praise for our crew……they thought that junior arsonists had set numerous small fires all over their allotments. We never did tell them the truth as copious amounts of tea and biscuits were appearing and the RAF was the toast of the area……..sorry!!!

This article is dedicated to Rangers Thompson and McLaughlin of the Royal Irish Rangers who died when the Green Goddess, in which they were travelling, was involved in an accident on Oldham Road, Manchester on December 6th 1977; answering an emergency call that tragically proved to be a false alarm.  A plaque commemorating these servicemen was placed in Philips Park near to the scene of the accident in August 2006 with PGW163 in attendance. (Due to water slopping about in the rear, the Green Goddess skidded, lost control and overturned into a petrol station. Ed.)

© Brian Burgess