Two serious fires in York and Ryedale overnight brought home with a vengeance the heavy reliance we place on our firefighters.

It is a chilling thought that these fires coincided with what would have been the first of the proposed two-day strikes by firefighters.

Last night an elderly woman was rescued from her Fulford home and taken to hospital suffering from the effects of smoke inhalation. Her neighbours had tried to reach her but were beaten back by the smoke. Firefighters calmly and professionally went in and rescued the woman.

At Malton in the early hours, a town centre florist's shop was badly damaged in a blaze which also spread to two parked cars. Firefighters used turntable ladders to quench the fire from above.

Fortunately they were not on strike, they had postponed their planned industrial action while their union spent the day in talks with the UK Fire Employers organisation to try to end the deadlock over a pay claim.

The firefighters want a 40 per cent increase to bring their pay up to £30,000 a year. They say they are grossly underpaid for the work they do. They often risk serious injury and death in their battle to save other lives and property.

Tragically and poignantly, a firefighter died tackling a huge blaze at a disused factory in Leicester today.

The negotiations were continuing today and the death can only reinforce the Fire Brigades Union's argument. And the union remains adamant that if an agreeable solution is not quickly found, the series of crippling strikes will begin next week.

"What if they had been on strike?" our front page headline asks starkly today. We dread to think.

With a handful of ill-equipped, outmoded military Green Goddess vehicles to cover our county, the risk is unacceptable.

Both sides in the dispute know the gamble that is being played out. The morality of depriving communities of professional fire cover, and the financial cost of a large pay claim are all being weighed in the balance.

A 40 per cent pay rise may be unrealistic, but last night's events clearly demonstrate that a compromise must be reached before strikes become disastrous reality.

Updated: 11:13 Thursday, October 31, 2002