The toll of the blowlamp, the fag end and the spark

THE BRITISH workman's blowlamp is proving to be one of the greatest threats to Britain's architectural heritage. Fire officers say restoration work on historic properties is emerging as a principal cause of fires.

The fire earlier this month at Stormont Castle, near Belfast, was the latest in a series of blazes in historic buildings that have broken out during renovation work.

Windsor Castle, the National Trust's Uppark House, the Savoy Theatre in London, Edinburgh Playhouse, the Langham Hotel in London and Mar Lodge in Braemar are among two dozen important buildings which have suffered more than £100m-worth of fire damage in the past five years.

The problem is now considered so serious that in May more than 250 fire officers, insurers and other fire experts are to attend a conference on the Isle of Wight to discuss ways of preventing such fires.

At Stormont, an investigation headed by former chief fire inspector Sir Reginald Doyle is to focus on links between the blaze and recent renovation work. Sir Reginald is to begin his inquiry by studying forensic reports which suggest that the fire could have started in wiring behind the Speaker's chair. The repair bill is estimated at £15m.

Flammable materials such as solvents, and tools such as blowlamps used during restoration work, are often the cause of fires in historic buildings. But their very construction can also play a part. Many older buildings are made of wood or have been constructed in such a way that fires can spread rapidly.

Stewart Kidd of the Fire Protection Association, which advises on fire prevention, said: "When I see scaffolding against a listed building I shudder. The work being carried out, the fact that workmen are there who don't know the building, the likelihood that electricity and therefore fire alarms might be switched off, all mean that fire is a real risk."

Don Appleby, chief fire officer of the Isle of Wight and a member of the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association (CACFOA), who is helping to host the conference, said: "In the last two to three years the rates of these incidents have leapt up. Once these buildings go up in flames you can never really replace them."

The risk of restoration was highlighted by the blaze at Uppark House, West Sussex, in 1989. The fire was traced to heat from an oxy-acetylene torch being used to weld lead, which ignited roof timbers during a £128,000 restoration project.

Contractors Haden Young,which admitted that the fire was caused by negligence by its employees, have since been found liable for legal costs and damage totalling around £25m.

Two years after the Uppark fire, £40m worth of damage was caused to Windsor Castle when fire broke out during a renovation programme. The fire wrecked the castle's St George's Hall and the Chester Tower.

Terry Glossop, chief fire officer of Gwent and chairman of the CACFOA fire safety committee, said: "We must get people to be more vigilant and alert to the dangers in renovation of old buildings."