YORK firefighters rescued an elderly woman from her blazing flat during what would have been the first in a series of national strikes over pay.

Fellow firefighters were also called out to a blaze that gutted a North Yorkshire shop.

In the York incident, a kitchen fire left retired school teacher Vera Rigby, 86, trapped in the living room of her ground floor flat in Pasture Farm Close, Fulford.

Neighbours, alerted to the blaze by her screams, kicked down the door and smashed through the living room window in an effort to reach the distraught widow.

Alan Dickens, who has lived in the cul-de-sac for seven years, entered the flat twice, but was unable to reach the living room because of the thick smoke.

Within minutes, fire crews were on the scene to take over the rescue and Mrs Rigby was carried to safety, treated at the scene by paramedics for smoke inhalation, and taken to York District Hospital, where she was today said to be stable.

The incident, at 5.45pm yesterday, came as talks aimed at preventing strike action continued between the Fire Brigades Union, which is calling for a 40 per cent pay rise, and employers.

The first planned strike was due to start at 9am on Tuesday and run until 9am today, but was called off as negotiations started.

A North Yorkshire Fire Service spokeswoman said the situation could have been much worse for Mrs Rigby.

She said: "With the age she was, if we had been on strike, well it's just not worth thinking about, really."

Upstairs neighbour Ann Nelis, whose flat was not damaged in the blaze, said she had known Mrs Rigby for 50 years since she first joined her class at Fulford School aged four.

She said: "I'm a Fulford girl and she was part of my life. The fire shook me up. I just hope she's going to be all right. She's a fighter.

"She was my first teacher in school and she's a fantastic person. Everybody around here knows her."

Her husband, Michael Nelis, said: "Alan (Dickens) broke the door down and I broke the window to let the smoke out.

"We did try and get in a couple of times. It's a funny feeling when you can hear somebody calling in there and you can't see them because of the smoke."

Mr Dickens said: "I tried to get in but the smoke was so bad that I had to come out again.

"Then Ann (Nelis) gave me a coat to put over my face and I got down to the kitchen door where the fire was, and with that the fire brigade arrived, and what a wonderful job they did.

"I said that it was a good job this hadn't happened during the strike, but the woman in charge said they were supposed to be striking."

The flat was left with fire damage in the kitchen and smoke damage throughout.

The cause of the blaze has been attributed to a faulty fridge-freezer.

Firefighters also worked through the night containing a blaze that spread through a Malton shopping street.

Crews from Malton, York, Sherburn and Pickering tackled the blaze, which started at Dales the florist in Wheelgate, Malton, at about 1am today, spreading to neighbouring properties.

The three-storey florist's was gutted, the neighbouring greengrocers was also fire-damaged and another shop was smoke-damaged. Investigators believe it could have been caused by children playing with fireworks.

Updated: 11:33 Thursday, October 31, 2002