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A Cautionary Tale from John

There have been many instances of wildfires around the world and a few weeks ago, when temperatures peaked, in Britain too. Until you experience it, you never quite know what it is like or how you will react. And it can happen even if you think you are being careful and vigilant. Hence my shock when smoke was seen emanating from my Dutch Barn on the farm on Saturday evening.

Yes – foolishly no doubt – I had been having a ‘controlled bonfire’ nearby (but at least 8m away from any building). Those weeks of hot dry weather had led to an accumulation of wastepaper and hedge trimmings that we hadn’t dared do anything with until the weather turned. The crops were all harvested, and the straw removed, so Saturday seemed a safe day to ‘catch up’ (and, yes, I do have the necessary farm licence). All went well with my bonfire, and I had retired indoors for a cup of tea.

Fortunately, the barn only contained a bed of old straw in one bay, and nearby some timber fence posts but the rest of the building is in effect a log store for the winter. You don’t realise until trying to clear debris or douse a flame, how quickly a fire takes command, and how hot it gets. Although restricted to one corner of the barn, it clearly wouldn’t take long to spread. My solo efforts were inadequate, and Wiltshire (and Dorset) Fire brigades had to be called. Within ten minutes they were on site – a happy, sympathetic and professional ‘band of merry men’, even if under their breath they despaired of the antics of this farmer. They did kindly say they were relieved it was no worse than it was – the calls they have had this year involving fields, barns and straw had prepared them for another major blaze. And they complimented many farmers who, often with machinery and water to hand, have greatly assisted in bringing a fire under control.

Within half an hour they had completed their work. The building and materials at risk were well doused down and the offending burning bales had been dragged out into open safe space. The young men all jumped back up into their vehicles and left me to survey the scene and breathe a great sigh of relief. I hope the rest of their evening shift was without incident.

The cause? Well, no doubt my bonfire hadn’t helped – even though I’m certain no spark or material had spread from it to the barn. I believe it was the heat in the ground, or even (as my good neighbour had only mentioned about a week ago) heat following plant roots underground. To me it was unexpected how warm (or should I say, hot) the soil was. My suspicion in this case pointed to some ‘old man’s beard’ growing on the edge of the barn – its roots do spread underground like the creeper it is. The heat in the ground, added to heat generated by my bonfire may well have combusted around the dry old straw in the barn – and once alight, away it went. Scary. No excuses – but a lesson as to how fire can travel invisibly and can take a period of time (maybe two hours in this case) before it surfaces – and as a postscript, even ‘the morning after the evening before’, there were wisps of smoke in the straw left behind.

Moral of the story: –

· not to be so naive to have a bonfire (controlled though you may think it is) when the weather (and ground) conditions should dissuade you;

· not to retain old materials which potentially pose a fire risk;

· total appreciation of the fire services for their availability, expertise and good humour in coming to our aid when we need them – that message of course is applicable also to all the Services (ambulance, police, and lifeboats) in this country who look after us so well.

Thank you.

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