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Rock Maze
  • Writer's pictureNeil

Conflagration and Keeping Shtum

Conflagration; an extensive fire which destroys a great deal of land or property.

Shtum; the Yiddish word for keeping silent or hiding secrets.

A couple of nights ago there was a moorland fire at Rosenannon. Around a quarter of Rosenannon Downs Nature Reserve, Bodmin, equivalent to over 20 hectares, was burned to the ground in a suspected act of arson. The fire could be seen from almost 20 miles away. My friend sent me a photo from her garden in Enniscaven and Lauren sent a photo from Padstein. Pretty dramatic.

I got to thinking about my own close shaves with fire. Sometimes, but not always, caused by me and a trusty box of Blue Cross matches. Fire, as we all know, provides fascination and fear in equal measures. A real primeval response.

The first occasion, let’s call it a “Bleddy Hell, let’s run away” fire, was just on the outskirts of Bugle. I think I was with my brother Colin. I must have been about 8. We were wandering around the village tooled up, as kids were, with a penknife, probably some string, sweets, a hanky and on this occasion, a box of matches. We found a little out of the way spot amongst the fuzzy bushes and ferns. We gathered together some dry grass and sticks and made a little seemingly harmless fire. Great fun until a gust of wind blew some of the burning grass under a fuzzy bush (gorse bush). Boy did it flare up. We had no means to stop the flames.

When you next see a fuzzy bush you may notice two things. First they’re pack animals and second the underneath is always tinder dry. We looked at each other in horror and thought “Bleddy Hell, let’s run away”. We were spotted, we ran even faster. Later we heard a fire engine was called out. We kept shtum. Until now!

Another time, far more serious. Another good reason for keeping shtum was a fire in the boiler room of Bugle school. It was, apparently caused by a spark from the big boiler which my dad shovelled coke into morning and evening to heat the school. Well actually it could have been me that started the fire! Sometimes we were allowed to mow the front lawn of the school. I spilt a little bit of petrol while I was filling the lawn mower. Just a bit on the floor. In my naivety I thought just “burn it away”. So that’s what I did. Job done, tidy up, go home. That evening there was a fire in the boiler room. Coincidence? I think not.

I’m not finished. Many years later in my early 20s I returned to my family home for a while. I was teaching at Poltair School. Often as I returned home I would pop in to see my aged aunt who lived next door. As I glanced upstairs all I could see was billows of acrid smoke. My parents ran two shops at the time so there were fire extinguishers around. I raised the alarm, grabbed a fire extinguisher and entered the scene in search of my aunt who had scampered into the smoke. She was a frail woman, I found her in a panic saving her jewellery. I was holding my breath. Much to her distress I gathered her up and manhandled her down the stairs. I took one breath just before I was clear of the smoke. Definitely NOT to be recommended. I was off work for a week. Again the fire service was called. All ended well. Not too much damage. The fire was limited to one room although there was extensive smoke damage. I appeared in the local papers as a hero.

There’s more. I was now married. We were in our second house. A bit of a do-upper just near where we're living now. I had a large oil drum with holes cut in the bottom to use as an incinerator. Every garden should have one. At least I’d learnt to contain the fire. We had been clearing the garden all day. Burning what rubbish we could. Some time much later in the evening I decided to tidy up a bit. The fire in the oil drum was well and truly out. A shed I had been dismantling had lengths of wood too big to burn without cutting up so I neatly stacked then upright in the drum. The drum was pretty full, the summer light was fading, I went to bed. Did I say the fire in the drum was well and truly out? Not according to the policeman banging on our door. I’d created a kind of jet engine firing an impressive array of flames into the night sky causing alarm amongst my neighbours. Oops!

I could go on. Different houses, different times. Impromptu bonfires with jacket potatoes, sausages on sticks and campfire music. Accidently creating fire on the decking by the sun shining on a parabolic mirror. Keeping a fire burning for two days just burning rubbish that had accumulated In our French house. We've even got a wood fired pizza oven in the garden.

I like a good fire. I’ve even installed a log burner here in the lounge at home but reading the above I think I’d better stick with central heating.

Coincidentally the friend who sent the photo from her garden, works for the fire service. I may have already said too much.

I should have kept shtum.

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Emma Matthews
Emma Matthews
11. Feb. 2021


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