Thatched cottage destroyed by fire

ALMOST 50 firefighters from across west Suffolk battled a severe blaze which ripped through the thatched roof and first floor of a cottage while the owners were out at lunch.

ALMOST 50 firefighters from across west Suffolk battled a severe blaze which ripped through the thatched roof and first floor of a cottage while the owners were out at lunch.

Their job was hampered by the dry thatch, a poor water supply and high winds - which had fanned the flames into a raging inferno before crews arrived at the house in Lidgate, near Newmarket.

And officers in charge of yesterday afternoon's operation to bring the fire under control said the threatened turntable ladder from Bury St Edmunds, which could be hit by cost cutting proposals to slash the number of specialist operators, played a crucial role in tackling the fire.

The fire was spotted by a neighbour, and a crew from nearby Wickhambrook were on the scene within minutes. As they travelled to Lidgate they could see a huge plume of smoke rising into the sky on the other side of the valley and realised the fire had taken a firm hold.

Last night the devastated owner of the house, Sandra Dewhurst, said she and her husband Richard were too upset to talk in detail about their feelings but she said their house, which was nearing the end of major extension work, had "gone".

Both the roof and the upper floor of the original thatched cottage and the new tiled extension were completely destroyed by the flames and the rest of the property has been hit by severe water damage.

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Villagers and firefighters did, however, manage to retrieve treasured possessions from the family home before it became too dangerous to enter the house.

The cause of the lunchtime fire was not clear last night and investigators are expected to begin an inquiry into exactly how it started today.

Assistant Divisional Officer Mark Steggall was one of the officers in charge of the massive fire-fighting operation involving 45 firefighters, six fire engines - from Bury, Wickhambrook, Newmarket, Clare and Haverhill - the turntable ladder from Bury and a water tanker.

He said: "By the time the fire was discovered the roof was engulfed. The strong wind made things worse and the poor water supply in this village hampered our operation. The water supply is not great in Lidgate and you need vast quantities to put out fires in thatch - we used one hydrant, a nearby stream and we also brought water in.

"We just got as much water on as we could and then began working to hack off the thatch itself."

Mr Steggall praised the firefighters involved: "They have done remarkably well under the circumstances. They have worked very hard in trying to contain the fire to the first floor only - the only damage to the ground floor is water damage.

"The turntable ladder was also vital in reducing the fire damage. We have been able to get water directly on to the roof and also the wire mesh used on the top of the thatch can sometimes hinder us but thanks to the ladder we had a stable platform from which to pull it away."

Sub Officer John Barton, who led the Wickhambrook crew which arrived at just before 1.30pm, said he knew the roof was well alight: "As we came over from Wickhambrook - looking over the valley we could see the huge plume of smoke and knew it was a very well developed fire."

He praised villagers helping retrieve some of the valuables from inside the house: "They formed a kind of chain gang to get furniture out and had quite a bit of stuff piled up by the side of the road before it got too dangerous for us to go in. It was heartening to see such community spirit."

The crews kept pouring water on to the roof throughout the afternoon and pulling away the thatch and last night firefighters were still at the scene damping down.

The proposed cuts to the numbers of firefighters dedicated to operating the turntable ladder are part of a major modernisation review. Last week Fire Brigades Union members from the Bury station met with the town's MP David Ruffley to discuss their concerns.

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