IT’S the year that is always called to mind during a heatwave.

The pictures – many of them unseen for more than 40 years – show just how intense the long, hot summer of 1976 was.

Just last week, Britain saw the hottest June day since 1976, with Bournemouth topping the nation’s temperature league table at 30.5 Celsius (86.9 Fahrenheit).

Forty-one years ago, the heatwave was much longer and dryer, with temperatures often well into the 30s Celsius (90s Fahrenheit) and no rain for 45 days in many parts.

Many remember the rocketing temperatures and the advice to recycle water or even share baths. But for those who came anywhere near them, the big fires that ripped through Dorset and the New Forest will be the abiding memories of that year.

On Monday July 12, 1976, the Echo reported “Blazing Black Sunday”, with hundreds of thousands of trees destroyed in a spate of disastrous fires.

The biggest, at Ebblake near Ringwood, drew more than 150 firefighters from three brigades.

At Matchams, north of Avon Causeway, around 30,000 trees were destroyed. A third blaze destroyed an area of Sopley Common that was home to three species of protected wildlife – the natterjack toad, smooth snake and sand lizard.

At one point, the fire crossed the A338 Spur Road, spreading through forestry land on the east. It threatened the Bournemouth and District Water Company pumping station, where staff stood by with hoses.

Deputy head forester Gordon Barfield said: “It’s been the worst weekend any of us can remember and yesterday’s fire was the biggest we can remember.”

As it turned out, there would be plenty more such sights that summer.

In August, an even bigger blaze destroyed 50,000 trees at Hurn Forest.

Forestry Commission staff believed at least half the year’s big forest blazes were started deliberately, with at least two arsonists though to have been involved at Hurn.

At this point, the effects of the drought were being felt everywhere.

Richard Butler, deputy president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), visited Wimborne that month and warned the outlook was grim, with many livestock farmers already using their stocks of winter feed.

Dorset’s NFU branch chairman, Rear Admiral Tom Best, said conditions were disastrous for vegetable farmers and that veg would be scarce in the winter.

On the same day, the Echo reported that thousands of gallons of water had been wasted when a 24-inch main burst at Fleetsbridge.

As people looked to the forecasts for relief, the Echo reported that two cosmonauts in space could see an end to the “riot of weather” that had brought droughts to Western Europe and torrential rain in the east of the continent.

Until then, there was more devastation to come.

On August 18, the Echo reported on “holocaust at St Ives”.

The fifth major fire in a week had seen flames 50ft high travelling up to 30mph. Fire had consumed a wooden bungalow, six vehicles, five sheds and a garage, before jumping the A31 dual carriageway and setting light to vegetation on the central reservation and beyond.

On August 20, Wessex Water Authority was reported to be considering bringing water from Scotland.

Trains carrying up to 100,000 gallons could provide a mobile pipeline, the Echo reported. Another option could be tankers coming from Norway.

Meanwhile, villagers in Blandford were calling for hundreds of wells to be uncovered and reopened.

On August 23, the Echo reported on the “great blaze” which had devastated Matchams, with more outbreaks of fire possible anywhere in the tinder-dry new Forest.

The fire had seen 500 people trapped in Matchams Stadium the previous day. More than 350 elderly patients, many of them seriously ill, were carried across the A31 dual carriageway as the blaze swept towards St Leonard’s Hospital.

The fire came within 50ft of 18th century Matchams House, by then a country club. Owner Gerry Dommett said the flames “sounded just like a thousand motorbikes plus Concorde. It was frightening … just like a tornado coming”.

Many backed a call by the Daily Echo for the forest to be closed to recreational visitors.

On August 27, the Echo reported how six major blazes had broken out north of Bournemouth on the same afternoon. Fire had swept along a six-mile front, engulfing homes, claiming the lives of 19 great Danes at Avonmoor Kennels, and destroying an elderly couple’s caravan.

Three hundred people were evacuated as flames up to 100ft high came within yards of several 30,000 gallon tanks at the army’s West Moors petrol depot.

But an end was in sight. Soon after appointment of a government minister for drought, the skies opened.

As the Echo’s headline on August 31 said: “It was back to the bank holiday of tradition.”