Cottage destroyed in thatch fire drama

AN IDYLLIC cottage destroyed by fire in the eighth thatch blaze to strike Suffolk homes in only a few months could cost £400,000 to rebuild.But John and Susan Bolden, who were totally unaware flames had engulfed their entire roof until a neighbouring farmer rang their door bell, last night said they were relieved to have escaped with their lives and described their home of four months as “only bricks and mortar”.

By James Mortlock

AN IDYLLIC cottage destroyed by fire in the eighth thatch blaze to strike Suffolk homes in only a few months could cost £400,000 to rebuild.

But John and Susan Bolden, who were totally unaware flames had engulfed their entire roof until a neighbouring farmer rang their door bell, last night said they were relieved to have escaped with their lives and described their home of four months as “only bricks and mortar”.

At the height of Saturday evening's blaze more than 60 fire-fighters from across Suffolk were involved in the massive operation to quell the flames and salvage treasured possessions from the four-bedroom cottage, which had undergone extensive restoration over the past 10 years.


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Officers in charge of the incident were unable to say for sure how the blaze started but they put the recent spate of thatch fires down to exceptionally rain-free winter weather, which has allowed straw and reed roofs to become tinder dry at a time when open hearths and wood burners are still in use.

They said the latest home to be devastated by fire - grade II listed Wheeley Hall Cottage in Broom Hill Lane, Woolpit - was equipped with all the right protection against such damage but somehow the blaze took hold and, fanned by high winds, spread rapidly along the roof.

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Mr Bolden, 61, said he and his wife, 59, were just settling down to watch the rugby international on Saturday afternoon when the farmer saw what was happening: “The whole roof was on fire and he saw the flames from his field.

“It was just by chance the farmer was there - we hadn't heard a thing. I knew that as we could see flames coming out of the roof it had well and truly taken hold so we just got out and got our dogs out.

“The first crew, from Elmswell, was here within five minutes and as well as fighting the fire they got most of our contents out the only things we lost were soft furnishings.

“The adrenaline seemed to kick in and we have been quite circumspect. We got out, the dogs got out and what's gone is only bricks and mortar - it can be replaced and we can't be sentimental about it. The books and things we've had all our married life can't be replaced but we've still got those thanks to the fire crews.”

Mr Bolden, who is taking up his insurance firm's offer of a hotel room for a few nights until he can find somewhere to rent, said it would take between eight and 10 months to rebuild his home: “I think we're talking £350,000 to £400,000 - its not like whacking up a three-bedroom brick house.”

Assistant Divisional Officer Jon Illingworth, who was leading the crews still at the scene yesterday morning, said the roof and the first floor of the cottage were wrecked. Timbers, ceilings and windows had caved in and in some places the first floor had collapsed.

Structural damage was still being assessed, he said, but cracks to one gable end wall had been caused by the intense heat and the collapse of the supporting roof structure.

He said teams of fire-fighters would be at the scene into the night: “It's still smouldering and we won't leave the scene until we're satisfied we have put the fire out and left the building in a safe condition.”

Mr Illingworth said in a bid to stem the current wave of such incidents the Suffolk Fire Service was planning a series of special safety seminars following the success of an initial session in Wickhambrook last week, which attracted around 100 owners of thatched homes.

Divisional Officer Kevin Burton, who led the 10-crew fight to save the cottage on Saturday evening, said because the flames had such a strong hold of the roof he set his teams about salvaging as many belongings as possible at the same time as trying to contain the flames.

He said: “It's like an open top bus at the moment - the ground floor is mainly intact but the roof is gone. It will be a hell of mess up there.”

But he praised his fire-fighters, some of whom needed breathing gear to cope with the choking smoke, for the way they handled the difficult job of dragged burning and waterlogged thatch away from the building to keep damage to the ground floor to a minimum.

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