Richard and Phoebe's website

Roof fire

It was Tuesday night 19-Feb.  We were finally having a great rainstorm which we badly needed.  There had been some thunder and lightning but not too much.  In the middle of the night, around midnight, we both woke with a start with a VERY LOUD thunder bolt.  Once our teeth stopped chattering, we decided that it had hit quite close to our house.  The power was out, but all seemed OK, so we tried to go back to sleep. After a few minutes, I was still awake and decided to look go upstairs and see if it had caused any damage to any nearby houses.


As I was going up stairs, I smelt smoke.  As I got upstairs, and looked up at the thatch roof and I saw flames!  OH-MY-GOSH!!!  The first thing I did was panic! When that didn't help, I filled a mixing bowl with water at the sink and threw it up at the flames…A direct hit! The flames went way down, but there was still a glow.  Phoebe searched around for the cell phone, but we couldn’t remember where it was in all the commotion.  The flames started up again in the roof.  I threw more water up at it, but the thatch is 4 inches thick and the fire was in the middle of the 4 inches, so I could not get it out.  I went out on the balcony and yelled FIRE!  Eventually the neighbor heard and came out.  They just stood in the doorway looking up at me and trying to see what the commotion was all about.  I kept yelling to call the fire department.  They are an Afrikaner family and I didn’t know how much English they understood.  The flames were starting up again, so I went back in to throw more water on it, but that was not enough. 


I decided that I could get the hose from the garage, connect it to the back yard hose, throw it up on the deck, and bring it in the deck doors.  All of this was going to take time, but the mixing bowl technique was not doing it.


When I was on the deck retrieving the hose, the neighbor said they had called the fire brigade and they were coming.  I climbed up on the kitchen cabinets and squirted the hose at the flames.  That helped a lot, but there was not much water pressure and I could only get a small stream to hit the thatch.  The other problem is that wooden beams that hold up the roof were between me and the thatch.  It was hard to hit it from all the angles necessary. 


Meantime, Phoebe had fetched the landlord (and neighbor) and he turned on the rooftop sprinklers (go figure… I didn’t know they even existed).  The flames were under control, but the thatch was still smoldering inside the 4 inches.  I kept squirting water at the fire.  Water was getting everywhere. The fire brigade came, and we moved the furniture and books out of the way.  Boy did it make a hell-of-a-mess when the let those hoses spray!  They could not get the smoldering to stop either.  Finally, they set up ladders climbed up on the roof and pulled out all the smoldering thatch.  Then they sprayed the hoses into the house from the roof to fully wet all the timbers that hold up the roof.  With water gushing everywhere and it pouring rain, the fire brigade threw a tarp over the hole in the roof, squeegeed the floor to get most of the water out the door and left.  The fire was out … and the house was a WRECK!



Click picture for an enlargement

Fireman standing on top of the cabinets. The fire is just smoldering, but it is in the top corner near the center of the picture

Fireman getting ready to spray with the small hose.

The burned thatch they removed.



By switching off one circuit, we were able to turn the power back on.  Water continued to drain through the house into the downstairs bathroom.   You could hear it gurgling in the wall behind the mirror, then it came pouring out from behind the mirror.  I used plastic packing tape to create a trough for the water to follow from the wall at the base of the mirror to the toilet so the water would stop flooding the floor.  We wandered around the house dazed for at least an hour just surveying the situation.  About 2 hours later (4:00AM) we fell asleep again.  I set the alarm so I could check the roof in an hour…very thing was fine… water was still draining down the tape-trough in the downstairs bathroom, and you could still hear the water gurgling in the wall behind the mirror.


The landlord woke us up at 7:00am to check on things.  With the water still draining into the down stairs bathroom just as fast as the night before, we figured there must be more than just fire-hose water in the wall.  We shut off the water supply to the house and the water draining stopped.  SO THE LIGHTNING CAUSED A LEAK IN THE PLUMBING?? 


The phone, water, TV, satellite dish, stereo, garage door opener, roof and one electrical circuit,were all fried. But no one was hurt, and there was little damage to our belongings. Over the next 24 hours, we had the cleaners, plumbers, roof thatcher, electrician, fire inspectors, and the fire brigade (back to anchor the tarp better) visit.  Neither Phoebe nor I went to work.  We hosed down the inside of the house to remove most of the soot and grime (heck, everything was already soaked).  Then the carpet cleaners followed with the wet/dry vacuum to dry up what did not flow out the door.  We spent the whole day cleaning and making things livable again.


The plumber chiseled the wall away to expose the pipes outside the kitchen.  After 4 hours of chiseling, they found that when the builders put the awning up over the front door, they drove a nail into the cold water pipe.  Either the storm shook the awning and wiggled the nail loose, or the lightning rod is grounded through the cold water pipes, and the lightning stressed all the weak parts of the water system... thus the leak!  With that fixed, we turned the water back on… but the meter still ran even though there were no faucets open.  After 3 more hours, they found another hole in a pipe inside the wall behind the geyser (hot water heater).  Now the water works, but the thermostat on the water heater is broken so we have warm water.


Wednesday afternoon, the fire brigade returned to secure the tarp over the roof.  Of course they waited until the afternoon thunder storm came before climbing on the roof.


Click picture for an enlargement

Firemen reattaching the tarp the next afternoon during a thunder storm

Our Band-Aid!

Firemen and the plumber working in the rain

Plumber chiseling in the rain

The hole is on both sides of the double beam.

This "beautiful" celing fan took a hit.


Well, the power mostly works, the water mostly works, the phone works, and the roof doesn't leak. We do get a lot of ash, burned wood and pieces of burned thatch falling into the upstaris. The thatcher is supposed to come fix the roof on Monday.

The house has a thatch roof and is on the top of a hill, but it has lightning rods and sprinklers, so I thought it should be OK. The problem is that the lightning rods are installed wrong. They go through the cement cap on the roof, through the thatch and are bolted to the timbers that hold up the thatch. This means that lightning heats up all the dry thatch and the timbers. The fire marshal said that the lightning rods should not be on the top of the roof, but should be on a tower about 2 meters away, or at least attached to the side of the house and not going through the thatch. The landlord said he is going to put one up away from the houses. The fire marshal is looking for the builder to have a discussion with him.

Phoebe says she used to like thunder storms, but not anymore.