Westcountry fire and rescue workers dealt with more than 850 incidents in less than 24 hours and more than 1,500 in five days as flood victims bombarded the emergency numbers with calls for help.
Crews were deployed in force across Devon, Cornwall and Somerset to deal with the after effects of a downpour which has devastated the region.
But as firefighters are stretched to the limit and the massive clean-up operation begins, it has emerged that residents in rural areas are much more at risk than their urban counterparts because of public spending cuts.
And unions have warned that if, as is feared, the Government slashes fire and rescue budgets by up to 19% in the next spending review, a future response on this scale will look “very different”.
A new report out today shows that predominantly rural fire and rescue services receive just £17.52 per head of population, compared to £28.89 per head of population for metropolitan areas.
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) in Devon and Somerset is bracing itself for a cut of between £10 million and £15 million – a reduction it believes will make operations like the one conducted over the weekend difficult to provide.
Bob Walker, FBU chairman across the two counties, said the service could not continue to be “the poor relative”.
“If they take that amount then there is no way we can operate in the way we do at the moment,” he added.
“In Devon and Somerset 94% of spending goes on staff costs – if you take one seventh or one eighth of the entire budget we are not going to be doing something that looks like it does now.”
The annual State of Rural Public Services report, published by the Rural Services Network, has revealed that, on a per-capita basis, the most urban areas receive two-thirds as much funding again as the most rural areas, despite facing higher costs.
These include more fire appliances and more fire stations than would be needed in urban areas to serve the same size of population.
At the same time, rural distances give less opportunity to hold down levels of cover in one fire station in the knowledge that back-up cover is available from a neighbouring station.
Report author Brian Wilson said: “Ensuring adequate emergency cover for rural communities is a serious matter.
“Fire and rescue services may not be used as a part of daily life in rural areas, but their ability to respond quickly and effectively to emergencies are of critical importance.”
The report says services in rural areas such as Cornwall, which said 350 incidents had been attended in the 24 hours to 6am yesterday, and Devon and Somerset, which logged 500, rely heavily on some of the country’s 18,000 retained firefighters
These staff are calculated to reduce the cost of service provision to about one tenth of its normal level. But typical incident response times are about five minutes longer, because they first need to be mobilised.
Some Devon and Somerset fire stations deal with 400 incidents a year with individual firefighters called out to around half. Up to a quarter of its retained firefighter appliances could be unavailable because one or more crew members is too far away to be mobilised.