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Wildwood Trust director general Paul Whitfield speaks of fire caused by spark from log burner

The director of an animal park hit by a huge fire has spoken of the damage left behind by the blaze - which was caused by a log burner.

Paul Whitfield, director general of the Wildwood Trust between Herne Bay and Canterbury , says thousands of pounds of damage have been caused by yesterday's fire and a squirrel remains unaccounted for, but says it "could have been a lot worse".

The fire at Wildwood
The fire at Wildwood

The blaze was first discovered by a member of staff at about 3.30pm.

Between 100 and 200 visitors were then evacuated from the park in about 15 minutes.

Mr Whitfield said: "When I walked over and I saw these big plumes of smoke, I was very scared.

"We evacuated the park, then we were deploying people with fire extinguishers, but by that point it was too big for fire extinguishers to do anything but stop it from spreading.

"The smoke was massive. The flames were probably 10 to 20ft high in some places."

Wildwood Trust director general Paul Whitfield
Wildwood Trust director general Paul Whitfield

The blaze - the first in the animal park's 21-year history - broke out in an area that is out-of-bounds to the public.

Firefighters in several fire engines spent more than four hours battling the flames.

"It was in part of our yard where the keepers and rangers work," said Mr Whitfield. "It's an area where we store lots of old wood that might be useful for the future.

"There was a huge amount of wood there that went up straight away - it was a very dry, very hot day."

The fire service has this afternoon confirmed the fire started accidentally, after embers from a log burner spread to nearby outbuildings.

Photos of the fire taken by Mya-Jo Howlett
Photos of the fire taken by Mya-Jo Howlett

Animals in nearby enclosures, including red squirrels, dormice, barn owls, and all inhabitants of the park's reptile house, were swiftly evacuated.

Staff were also on standby to move reindeer and wild cats.

Mr Whitfield says the financial impact of the fire is not yet known, but that it has come at a particularly unfortunate time.

"It's the last thing we need at a time like this," he said.

"Covid has probably cost us £350,000 in lost income, which for a charity our size is a massive hit. We were shut for three months.

Photos of the fire taken by Mya-Jo Howlett
Photos of the fire taken by Mya-Jo Howlett

"We've cut costs wherever we can, so having to do all this is a real kick in the teeth at a time like this."

The fire tore through two squirrel breeding enclosures - razing one to the ground, and leaving the other in need of rebuilding.

"They're a big loss," said Mr Whitfield. "They cost about £8,000 to £10,000 to build.

"Probably the most substantial thing we've lost is a volunteer shed where our volunteers have a break, which we only built the year before last.

"We use it to store all our tools for volunteers - forks, spades, secateurs, gloves, shears.

Photos of the fire taken by Mya-Jo Howlett
Photos of the fire taken by Mya-Jo Howlett

"All those tools, most of which were donations, have gone."

The trust plans to run a small appeal, inviting people to donate items via an Amazon wish list, in the hope of replacing the tools and getting volunteer work back on track as soon as possible.

"We don’t just want to be asking people for money all the time, but with all these precious tools and resources gone, our volunteers can’t help us recover from the fire," said Mr Whitfield.

The Trust also has an ongoing appeal trying to raise £200,000 to build a forever home for two rescued bear cubs .

A red squirrel - one of about nine at the park - remains unaccounted for following the fire.

Stock picture of a red squirrel at Wildwood. Picture: Wildwood Trust
Stock picture of a red squirrel at Wildwood. Picture: Wildwood Trust

He was alone in his enclosure at the time.

"The wooden parts of the enclosure burned and created lots of holes, so he may have escaped," said Mr Whitfield.

"But by the time we could get in there to check, we'd had the fire blaze through it, then the hose pipes from the fire brigade on it, so it's a real mess.

"There's so sign of him yet, but we've got traps around and we're keeping our eyes peeled."

Following the blaze, Wildwood is carrying out a full internal investigation, and Mr Whitfield says changes will "definitely" be made.

"We're looking at what if this was to happen somewhere else in the park?

"When the fire brigade arrived there are a couple of things we could have done slightly better, so we're going to create a pack with a map with gridlines on it, so they know where we're talking about very quickly.

"It went incredibly well, but it's more thinking about the worst-case scenario. It could have been a lot worse."

To donate to Wildwood Trust, visit its website.

Read more: All the latest news from Herne Bay

Read more: All the latest news from Canterbury

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