IN August 1976, Sussex was tinderbox-dry due to a drought. The grass yellowed and leaves on the trees crisped up in the heat. Perfect conditions for a forest fire.

Mary-Joy Langdon, working on a farm in Battle, had read about the strain on the fire brigade due to the drought and one day walked up to the entrance of Battle Fire Station and stated her interest.

Little did she realise, after her first day on August 21, that she would become a poster girl for the press, keen to catch a glimpse of the 25-year-old "fire girl".

Sister Mary-Joy remembered: "I just walked up to the station and quite innocently said I had come to join the fire service.

"Two firefighters at the station were very pleasant and invited me in. Everybody was a little bit surprised.

"I had to go through a few tests and all that jazz and one day we went to the training centre up in Maresfield. The station commander said to me, 'There might be one or two press people there.' I didn't want to see any press people and when we got there it wasn't just a few press people - it was TV cameras and the lot. I was quite surprised.

"To be truthful I don't think I would have joined the brigade if I thought I was going to have the national press on my back for a while but I managed to ride that storm. They were quite inquisitive of the local fire girl.

"I wasn't doing it to be different or sensational. I was doing it purely because there was a need for more firefighters at that time. It was quite a serious environmental situation the country was in."

Sister Mary-Joy said the coverage was all positive. But she did get a letter from a retired firewoman during the war who took exception to the coverage.

Sister Mary-Joy said: "She said she was part of a team during the Second World War and how dare I claim I was the first.

"Well, I hadn't claimed anything - it was the press."

Her career with East Sussex Fire Brigade was as varied then as the modern role is now - ranging from traditional fires to animal rescues and some harrowing car crashes.

Sister Mary-Joy said: "I had been in the brigade for two years when it was on the national news that the country would accept females into the fire service generally.

"Someone had told me I was a bit of a guinea pig but I hadn't realised they had given me two years to prove my worth.

"I'm sure there were people who were saying it was not a suitable career for a female but it's not a suitable career for everybody. You have to be fairly fit and strong. There are females who are very good at it.

"The guys at my station were fantastic and I'm still friends with some of them now. OK, it was history in the making because up to then it was a totally male environment. During the war it was a totally different situation and you couldn't liken it to a peace-time fire service.

"They were very courteous. I was treated as one of the lads but they were always very polite. There was no sexual harassment or anything like that. I think as far as it could be it was a model situation.

"Several females who have joined fire brigades have had a bit of trouble but there was nothing like that for me. It was just a case of getting on with it."

Sister Mary-Joy, now 65 and living in east Acton, London, was a retained firefighter on a full unit, meaning she would be summoned by radio to drop everything at a moment's notice and dash to the station, which was a mile from her farm.

There were several occasions, though, when she was not on duty and faced tough situations, the worst being car crashes where people had been killed.

Sister Mary-Joy said: "I was actually driving somewhere and there was a horrendous accident in front of me.

"A lorry from the continent was driving on the wrong side of the road. A car coming the other way had a family with three kids in it and was hit.

"I sprang into action. Because I was the first person there I was responsible for dealing with what was in front of me.

"There were kids on the ground where they had been thrown through the front of the car and the mother was still in the passenger seat.

"I don't know where the husband who was driving had gone - he wasn't in the car. I never got to the lorry driver.

"It was difficult because you never know where to go to first.

"You're told to go to the silent ones first. But in this case they were all silent. Except the mother. She asked me where her husband was and I said he's outside but I couldn't say what had actually happened to him.

"She said they were coming back from holiday.

"That happened several times and they were generally around Christmas time. Drink-drive rules were not as strict then as they are now."

Most of the time Sister Mary-Joy responded to her pocket alerter.

"It would bleep and you would go running," she said. "You wouldn't know what it was until you got to the station.

"The adrenaline was immense. The rush was exciting but I wouldn't say I did it for that.

"You didn't know until you were in the back of the fire engine where you were going and what it was."

In the middle of the night it was first-come, first-served as to who went out on each job. In the day there was a skeleton crew for one fire engine. Sister Mary-Joy said there was never disappointment on missing out but that "once you set off you were quite determined you wanted to go". "There wasn't time to feel nervous," she added.

Her scariest moment was dealing with a leaking Calor Gas tank in a yard.

She said: "It was quite an isolated place. We had to have radio silence because of a risk of a spark.

"It was potentially quite serious because of other tankers there.

"My heart was pounding. I thought, 'If this thing blows up that's it. When you look back on it, it might have been quite trivial but it's always a case of 'what if'." They eventually safely shut off the supply.

One of her biggest fires was at a retirement home in Hastings.

Sister Mary-Joy said: "When we arrived, there was smoke pouring out of the top and there were all these elderly people sitting inside drinking cups of tea. It was strange. They were eventually evacuated.

"Two of us in a pair dragged a hose into this room wearing breathing sets and we couldn't see a thing.

"You could feel the heat and when you got a glimpse you could tell it was serious. The really scary bit was realising we were balancing on the one surviving plank where the floor had gone beneath us."

After leaving the fire service in 1983, Sister Mary-Joy trained to become a member of the religious congregation of the Infant Jesus Sisters.

But her life-saving days were not over.

Based up in Wolverhampton in the mid-1980s, she spent time in Weybridge, Surrey, on a community experience to further her Catholic learning.

On a day off, returning from a family visit in Battle, she saw an accident on the Tonbridge bypass.

"I just saw this car flipping over on the other side of the road and flames were shooting out of it," Sister Mary-Joy said.

"I stopped and thought the car was going to blow. I ran across the road to get to the car and the guy inside was very much alive. I thought, 'We'd better get you out quick.' The petrol tank hadn't blown at that stage.

"I tried to get the guy out and it wasn't an easy job but another driver came over to help.

"Eventually we got him out and to safety and shortly after that the car exploded.

"I wasn't even in the fire service but it was only because I had the previous experience that I could help.

"When I was back at the novitiate for sisters of the Infant Jesus in Wolverhampton, there was a knock at the door and this gentleman and lady came in. He gave me some flowers and chocolates and said, 'Thank you for saving my life.' It was an incredible privilege to be able to do that. It was a special moment."

Sister Mary-Joy now works at the Wormwood Scrubs Pony Centre in London, which she founded in 1989 as a charity for inner-city children, specialising in young people with learning difficulties and physical disabilities.

She still uses the experiences she learned as a firefighter – from safety to the ability to work in a team.

Hundreds of children have learned basic fire safety and first aid skills at the centre, which houses 21 horses, ponies and donkeys.

Sister Mary-Joy adds: "I didn't realise firefighting was going to be a career when I joined. It was a very valuable part of my younger life. I learnt so much from it in life skills that I'm passing on today and for me it was a privilege belonging to an emergency service. I think every young person should have that opportunity.

"It makes you value life - your own, as well as others."