ROADWORKS - rather than a firefighters' strike - were last night blamed for the time taken for help to reach a blaze that cost a family all their possessions.
Two young men have been arrested on suspicion of arson after a fire in the back yard of a house in Darlington took hold and spread to neighbouring homes.
They have been released on bail pending further investigation into what caused the fire in Aldborough Walk, in the Lascelles Park area of the town, on Saturday (June 21).
No one was injured in the blaze, which was reported shortly after 4.35pm - less than half an hour before the latest strike by members of the Fire Brigade Union (FBU) was due to end.
One woman whose house was damaged said she and her daughters had ‘lost everything except the clothes we stand up in’.
Because lives were not considered to be at risk, striking officers were not asked to resume work.
A 'resilience crew' of professional firefighters, put in place by County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service to deal with incidents during the strike, was dispatched.
Those who had been on strike joined efforts to extinguish the blaze when the industrial action ended at 5pm.
Fire crews were at the scene for much of Saturday evening and a police presence was maintained in the area on Sunday.
Neighbours made a flurry of 999 calls as the flames spread, with many questioning whether the response time was related to the strike.
Deputy chief fire officer Stuart Errington said the response time was 'slightly longer' than usual, but blamed the ongoing roadworks on Darlington's inner ring road, close to the town's fire station.
He said: "The reason that the response time was slightly longer was roadworks in the centre of town and we were getting conflicting information about the address of the incident; there was three or four different addresses given."
Mr Errington rejected the claims of some eyewitnesses that the response time was longer the brigade's seven-minute target.
He added: "I would not accept that the response time was any longer than it would have been had it been business as usual.
"I am confident that, had we asked the staff to break the strike in a 'persons reported' incident, they would have done."
The end-terrace home, which was not occupied, suffered serious damage and seems likely to be demolished.
Neighbours are rallying round to help the family in the neighbouring property who said they had lost everything. There has been talk of a collection for their benefit.
The householder in the property at the other end of the four-house block, was one of several to raise the alarm.
She could only watch and pray that the flames would not spread as far as her home.
The woman, who asked not to be named, said: "I was terrified, I got myself outside and just stood watching the fire creep towards the house. It was horrendous."
Hers was the only one of the four to escape without damage.
Saturday's strike was the 14th period of industrial action by FBU members since September.
The union is locked in a dispute with the Government over controversial pension scheme proposals and plans to raise firefighters' retirement age to 60.
The fire was one of a handful of incidents reported across County Durham and Darlington during the strike.
Others included house fires in Barnard Castle, Shildon and Consett and a fire in the plant room of a hotel in Durham.
Mr Errington said: "While our resilience plans have worked well, for a period of time our resources were stretched as we dealt with the large fire in Darlington and a number of other incidents at the same time.
"I would like to thank all of our staff: resilience officers, normal fire crews and control room operators, who worked really hard in difficult circumstances to deal with these incidents successfully."