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U3A Writing: The Arsonist

…It soon became apparent that we were fighting a loosing battle . Our beating was achieving nothing. Suddenly a wind came up again, and we saw the fire, fifteen foot high, racing towards us. We dropped our beaters and ran. In front of us was the Anglican Church which had been built almost to roof level. Fortunately there was no glass in the windows and we dived in, minus eyebrows, arm hairs and with smouldering scalps and clothing which we managed to beat out…

John Ricketts learns at first-hand the danger of lighting a fire in the African dry season.

A few months after I had arrived in Kalomo I decided to clear the school grounds and to make a proper sports field - a football pitch, a running track and a tennis court with a practice wall.

I had some spare cash in the school fund and the promise of help with machinery when the basic work was done. The first thing I did was to hire casual labour to cut down the trees and dig up the tree stumps. Getting rid of the wood was easy but getting rid of the roots of the trees proved much more difficult. The only way was to burn them.

I had them dragged into several piles and covered them with dry grass which we had cut from the field. As it was the dry season it was necessary to obtain permission. I approached Laurie Cloete, who was the town secretary, who also happened to be the secretary of the Anglican Parish Council. He came to inspect. Except for the piles of tree stumps and roots, the ground was clear. There was no chance that the fire could get away, or that’s what he thought.

The next Saturday morning I told Robert, the school caretaker to light the fires. Soon they were burning furiously. What I had not realised was that fierce fires cause their own winds and suddenly the hot air caused a small whirly (a mini tornado) to start. It snatched some of the burning grass for the fires and took it high into the air to drop it on the adjacent plot where the Anglican church was being built and where the grass was bone dry and six feet high. I sent Robert and his assistant to start beating out the flames while I phoned the police to bring round the fire engine. Then I joined Robert.

It soon became apparent that we were fighting a loosing battle . Our beating was achieving nothing. Suddenly a wind came up again, and we saw the fire, fifteen foot high, racing towards us. We dropped our beaters and ran. In front of us was the Anglican Church which had been built almost to roof level. Fortunately there was no glass in the windows and we dived in, minus eyebrows, arm hairs and with smouldering scalps and clothing which we managed to beat out.

When the fire had passed we ventured out to beat down the smouldering embers. Unfortunately in the blackened ash of the grass a nice little fire was still burning. This turned out to be the newly creosoted roof beams of the church. We beat out the flames as well as we could and just as we succeeded in putting out the fire, the fire engine appeared. It was the first time it had ever been used. It consisted of a large water tank towed behind a Land Rover. There was a two-man pump which drove the water through the hose pipe. The delay had been caused because no one had anything to attach the tank to the back of the Land Rover until someone found a screw driver.

I was regarded with suspicion as being an arsonist by the Anglican congregation and Father Kirkham the Anglican Minister, especially as we were building a Catholic Church at the same time and getting on much quicker than the Anglicans were.

They decided to sue me but fortunately I had done everything right and the damage was caused by an act of God and their own carelessness in leaving the beams in the long grass. The government eventually gave them an ex-gratia payment of fifty pounds which just about covered their loss. Some of the charred beams were salvaged and gave the church character. I was not invited to the dedication which took place about a month after the opening of the Catholic church.


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