THE charred remains of the ballroom in what was once Hartlepool’s grandest building shows the devastating effect of arson.
Flames ripped through the rear of Tunstall Court in 2010, destroying the Victorian splendour of the West Park mansion that was originally built for the shipbuilding Furness family.
Ten fire engines were called into action that night and a host of initiatives followed to try to stop arsonists targeting the derelict 19th Century site.
But firefighters are still frequent visitors to the grounds as children keep sparking blazes.
I joined Dave Turton, Hartlepool district manager with Cleveland Fire Brigade, to look around the overgrown gardens and the graffiti-ridden building to see the signs of arson first hand.
He is playing a leading role in our Stamp It Out campaign to stop deliberate fires that cost taxpayers £2m last year in Hartlepool alone.
The brigade, Cleveland Police and Hartlepool Borough Council are all backing the initiative.
As we walked around Tunstall Court, we saw piles of soot both in the manor and among the grass, lager cans strewn around the area and troubling messages daubed on the walls saying things such as “I am death”.
And Mr Turton said that every fire in the building risks lives as the unkempt building is a danger to firefighters, as well as those lighting them.
Mr Turton told me: “Places like this are a massive drain on resources. We’ve had incidents here where 10 pumps have had to be deployed - that’s almost half of the brigade’s capacity.
“You can see why children come here, it’s out of the way and secluded and probably looks like a lot of fun to them, but it’s dangerous and what’s happening is not acceptable.
“We have to be careful when fighting fires here and try and keep a distance as it’s not a safe building, but then we can never be sure no-one is inside. It’s a real problem for us as it could lead to something very serious.”
There are around 20 similar sites around the town that cause a problem for the brigade, such as the former Steetley site, which is now being cleared for housing, and Summerhill Country Park, off Catcote Road.
But Mr Turton says it is not just derelict buildings that are being targeted.
He added: “Tunstall Court is quite unique, but you can boil down what is happening here to somewhere like Sheriff Street.
“It’s gradual jumps from setting fire to a wheelie bin, to starting a fire in Tunstall Court, to burning a house down and putting lives in danger.”
And Mr Turton has a damning message to the children lighting the fires, as well as their parents.
“One fire leads to another”, said Mr Turton. “They may think it is just kids being kids, but arsonists progress.
“It’s very much a male thing and we have had children as young as four playing with matches. If they are not spoken to then who knows how they would progress.
“There’s a lot of psychology behind why people do it, such as anger issues.”
Firefighters are visiting schools, patrolling arson hotspots and organising school summer holiday activities in a bid to teach children about the dangers of fire.
And Mr Turton is calling on parents to keep an eye on their children and look out for the tell-tale signs of firestarters.
They are: Small hidden burns marks in carpets, bedding and clothing, charred paper in sinks or waste bins, a smell of smoke on clothing and matches or lighters hidden away.
Cleveland Fire Brigade offer a free service to educate children and their parents about the dangers of fire and its consequences.
For more information, ring (01429) 872311 between 9am-5pm or (01429) 874058 on evenings and weekends.
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