In the UK, November 5 is Bonfire Night. The evening commemorates the time in 1605 when Guy Fawkes tried to blow the Palace of Westminster straight to hell with over 5000 pounds of gunpowder, and it is celebrated with fireworks and general pyromania. Unsurprisingly, it is the busiest night of the year for the UK fire service. This is relatively unsurprising, given that Bonfire Night has a lot to do with setting things on fire. However, what is quite shocking is how very wrong a lot of that celebratory arson goes: last year, there were 572 call-outs in London alone (which, admittedly, is a lot better than the 1,372 in 2005).
I wanted to see what the fire service are up against each Bonfire Night—how, exactly, so many people manage to start fires that spread uncontrollably to the point that they need professional help—so I made some enquiries with the Manchester Fire Department about tagging along for the evening.
"It's like a war zone up here sometimes," a press officer warned me on the phone. "I'll see what we can do, but you should know it can be dangerous—you're a long way from Chelsea up here, lad."
I'm not totally sure why he thought I was from Chelsea, but I appreciated the concern. After a few more phone calls everything was sorted out for the evening. I was set to ride along with the White Watch at Manchester's Moss Side fire station.
When I arrived at the forecourt, the team were having their briefing, stood to attention while the Watch Manager went through plans for the night. Cuts to the service have seen numbers and resources at this station fall, from two vehicles to one for the majority of the year.
"It's going to be busy tonight," I heard someone explaining, "so there'll be two pumps on tonight." Fire engines aren't actually called fire engines, by the way; they're called pumps. It's because they pump water. I learned this last night.
With the briefing over I made my way up to the kitchen, where the crew were standing, amped up and raring to go. I sat next to Ian Melville, White Watch Manager at Moss Side and a firefighter for 21 years.
"Moss Side has changed massively over the last few years—people with money are busy developing the area," he said. "A lot of the old accommodation has gone now, too; demolished to make way for redevelopment."
The area has a reputation for being a pretty rough part of town, and fire fighters have often born witness to the area at its worst. In 1981, for instance, the area saw a series of riots and became a hotspot for Manchester's gun crime and drugs trade. All that kept the team busy for a while, but with investment times have changed.
"Obviously that means the number of fire calls we get have reduced as well," Ian explained to me. "We've been doing too good a job."
But while kids setting fire to stuff for the hell of it might have become less common, on this day in November they're still fond of burning things. "Tonight there'll be bonfires, bin fires, that sort of thing," said Ian. "But who knows what the night may bring. One time we ended up ruining a fireplace."
Before Ian could tell me how he fucked up someone's fireplace, the alarms started to sound. It was 7:30 PM; the night had begun.
I jumped in the back with Mike and Chris, while Ian and the driver Paul sat up front. Another pump had already made it there by the time we arrived, so we stayed in our seats.
I asked if they ever come up against violence, because, in my mind, fire fighters—like paramedics—are very much the good guys. You never read about someone suing the fire service for brutalizing a civilian during a routine call-out, or see photos of them smashing peaceful protesters to the ground with their shields. "You'd like to think we're the good guys," said Ian as we made our way toward the next call. "But because we're in uniform people sometimes just see us as authority figures, and some people don't take too kindly to authority."
For Manchester's fire crews, being attacked is all too normal, a part of the job that you just have to accept. "We get a lot of issues with the youth of today," said Ian from the front seat. "I've been attacked while on a Bonfire Night job in Gorton. We were ambushed—lulled into an alleyway before fireworks and rockets starting being lobbed."
It's a lot safer now, though, he told me, with all the pumps in the region fitted with CCTV. However, there's still plenty of hostility toward crews around this time of year. Last night was no different; one incident in the northeast of the city saw youths hammer firefighters with bricks and missiles, having started a fire after ripping down the fences close to an electricity sub-station. Elsewhere, the cops were called in for backup after a hose was deliberately slashed while firefighters tackled a blaze.
The next job came through the system; a pub called The Unicorn was reportedly alight. We made our way there and found some families standing around a sizable bonfire on a green. The pub, now a nursery, was totally fine. In normal circumstances this outdoor fire would be out within seconds, but with adults on the scene the team were willing to let it slide.
"As long as there's no danger, people get to do what they want tonight," Mike explained to me as one of the guys in front went out alone to check all was OK. "We're much more flexible on Bonfire Night, but we still need to check things are safe. One year we came across something similar to this. I wasn't going to get the team on it, but wanted to see everything was OK. I made my way over and people started shouting abuse, reaching to chuck things toward me for no reason at all."
As Ian jumped back in his seat, the siren was off again, the pump hurtling toward a rural suburb where a barn was "well alight." Getting closer, word came through that it was just a bonfire and that we weren't needed. Flashing lights switched off, we headed to fuel up the engine's tank.
After a short disagreement with the guy working at the gas station (I was taking photos of the crew, who were happily posing, but a woman told us all to stop because it was a fire risk), another call came through. This time a vehicle was ablaze.
The guys kitted up next to me, all of them holding oxygen masks. In the back of the pump was some snazzy chart thing where the guys put their names on tags and stuck them next to some stats. "It's to show how much oxygen we have left, and who's on a job," Mike explained to me. It's also an indication of who's in a building, so you know who still needs to come back.
The van was definitely on fire when we arrived, an unexpected display for the neighbors standing by. Water and foam cut through the burning plastic and metal, smoke filled the pavements, and the fire was out.
"It's been parked funny," Ian suggested to me, "and the owner looks extremely relaxed, so I've informed the police that it's possible deliberate ignition." With the charred wreckage in a parking bay and more calls for us to take, we were off onto the next one, the council left to deal with the car carcass the next day.
As we sped off towards Salford, I asked if any of the guys had ever have rescued a cat from a tree. "No, I haven't had to do that," Chris laughed. "But I've rescued a lesbian from a tree before."
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"For me, the weirdest jobs are always when children get trapped," said Mike. "I've had a kid trapped between a toilet and the wall, one with their head between the railings on a bed. Oh, and that kid who got his penis trapped in his zip."
Before the penis-in-zip story could be finished, word came in that we were to be dealing with "youths setting bins on fire." Pulling up in an estate, a bonfire was in full swing, the blue lights sending a group of kids running off down an alley. While the crew got on with their fire-fighting, I headed off after the supposed delinquents, keen to find out why Fawkes' insurrectionary plot sparked a carnal desire in them to burn stuff.
I could only find two lads, both in trackies, who introduced themselves to me as Harold and Rupert. "We didn't start the fire," Rupert assured me, "it was some other lads who did it."
After chatting for a bit about the area ("it's shit") and school ("it's shit"), I asked if they'd be up for me taking a picture of them on the grass. "Nah, I don't like photos mate," Harold told me. "Else they'll know we started the fire and…" He stopped talking and they both legged it, realizing they had just admitted to starting the fire they said they hadn't started.
Safe in the knowledge that kids still like to burn stuff and then lie about it, we popped into the closest station for a "piss and brew stop." The team had been working non-stop for nearly three hours now, but after only a few minutes of downtime we were back on the pump.
As we made our way closer to Moss Side station, finally the promise of dinner seemed within reach. It was past 11 PM by this point, so the thinking was that most people wanting to set fire to trash cans would have probably tired themselves out by now. With the station in sight, the crew could almost taste the meatballs. Then the alarm went off. Some kids had set fire to some dumpsters. Really far away.
It was midnight when we finally made it back to Moss Side station, after taking our share of the 300+ calls that came through in the eight hours since 4 PM. Jumping out of the back of the pump, Paul ran off to cook up the meatballs. I followed him to ask what he makes of his last 23 years on the job.
"Until you get there, you don't know what might be happening, so you have to treat everything as the real deal—remain focused, just in case," he said. "Problem is, we have far fewer teams now, and we're dealing with a control now that are sat in a contact center where they don't know the job or the areas. We get messages mixed up. It's all a bit of a state."
With food being passed around the table, talk turned to recent changes in the service, like guys starting out now expected to work the job for 40 years before qualifying for their pensions. "I don't physically think you can do it," Phil—one of the youngest there—told me.
For the next two hours we sat and talked about all sorts of things, but by 2 AM it had been quiet for a few hours, so I decided to say my goodbyes. "Come back and do this again—it's been a pleasure," Paul said to me, as I inexplicably got a bit emotional that my time with him and the team had come to an end.
My time with White Watch reminded me that these people risk their lives on a daily basis, whether it's saving families from an inferno or putting out the bonfire you're too drunk to control. They were some of the friendliest people I've ever spent time with, genuinely not frustrated that they were driving around non-stop to clean up people's fiery mistakes.
I'd definitely take them up on their offer to hang out again. Moss Side fire station might be a bit out the way, but word is: if you set fire to a dumpster and call it in, they'll drive straight to you.
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