Warning of farm fire dangers as balloon blamed for destroying £10,000 of crops

Flames and smoke spread across a stubble field after a baler fire at Edgefield, near Holt. Picture:

Flames and smoke spread across a stubble field after a baler fire at Edgefield, near Holt. Picture: COLIN SCOLES - Credit: Archant

A warning was issued to the public today to take extra care in the tinder dry conditions as the risk of fire to Norfolk's beautiful countryside and farmers' crops grows.

The warning comes after Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service revealed it had attended more than 370 fires in the open and in forestry since April 1.

The fire count includes a major blaze at Thetford Forest on July 1 and a large fire at Fritton Woods on the same day, which was started deliberately.

Fire experts say there are many potential accidental causes, including careless disposal of cigarettes, sky lanterns, hot exhausts igniting dry vegetation and straw, and campfires and barbecues used too close to dry grass or crops.

Stuart Horth, head of community safety at Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service, said: 'Some of the fires we see in the countryside are started deliberately, but most are due to careless and thoughtless actions. So they could be avoided by taking just a little extra care.'

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And he warned: 'In partnership with the police, we have improved our capabilities to investigate fires and catch those who set them deliberately. Fires in the open not only cause a danger to human life but also destroy wildlife and the livelihood of rural communities.'

This week, a metallic party balloon was even blamed for causing a farm fire which destroyed about £10,000 of crops and threatened neighbouring homes.

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The gold helium-filled balloon, shaped as the numbers five and zero joined together, was spotted drifting into overhead power lines running above Old Manor Farm at East Ruston, near Stalham, on Monday.

It was seen by Malcolm Pegg, a 65-year-old construction worker from Cromer who was working on a neighbouring field about 100 yards away. He said: 'I saw it hit the cables and I saw a flash, and then another flash. I suppose about five minutes after that I looked over that way again and I saw smoke.'

About 20 acres of malting barley, destined for the brewing industry, was destroyed by the blaze.

After the fire crews departed, farmer John McLeod discovered some molten remains of the balloon in the scorched field, and hanging from the electricity cables overhead.

'All the evidence points to burning fragments of the balloon dropping onto the field and starting the blaze,' said Mr McLeod.

'I am amazed that someone who was probably celebrating a 50th birthday or perhaps wedding anniversary could be so reckless as to allow a helium balloon to drift away without thinking of the possible consequences.'

Mr McLeod estimates the cost of the damage to be about £10,000 – but he said it could have been much worse, as there are 10 houses within 300 yards of the field.

'I'm sure it was only the rapid response and quick thinking of the fire crews that prevented this incident from becoming a disaster,' he said.

UK Power Networks spokesman John Lang said the company's evidence suggested the balloon was not the cause of the fire.

'From our information it looks like the fire and the balloon's interaction with our equipment are unrelated,' he said. 'The transformer at the end of the line is completely untouched, and if it (the fire) was linked to that there would have been damage.

'If the cables had shorted it would also have caused some kind of power issue and we would have to replace the overhead line – and we have not had to do any of that.

'All I can say for sure is that we cannot find any fault with our equipment, and it is up to the fire service to investigate the cause.'

A Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service spokesman said the incident logs show no known cause of the fire. She said: 'We are not aware of any incidents where fires have been started by these balloons.'

Tim Price is rural affairs spokesman at NFU Mutual, an insurer which has paid claims totalling more than £2m for crops damaged by field fires in the last three years.

'Field fires are a serious concern for farmers in East Anglia,' he said. 'Dry crops awaiting harvesting are at risk of fire during dry weather - so we are urging visitors to the countryside to take care not to discard matches or cigarettes which could inadvertently start field fires.'

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