THE lives of children and teachers were put at risk when arsonists destroyed a minibus belonging to the Countryside Education Trust in Beaulieu.
The blaze engulfed the Ford Transit which was parked next to the charity’s residential centre at Home Farm in Palace Lane where youngsters and teachers were asleep inside.
The alarm was raised at around 4.15am yesterday (Wednesday), and firefighters battled the flames for about half an hour. By the time the emergency was contained the minibus had been completely gutted.
The fire crews from the village and Hardley alerted police amid suspicions as to what caused the incident, and Hampshire police has since confirmed it has launched an arson investigation.
A spokesperson for the force said officers were also investigating reports that feeding troughs had been stolen from the rear of the vehicle.
The CET, which has been running for nearly 45 years, hit out at the arsonists’ reckless actions in a post on its Facebook page.
“We are terribly sad to report that last night someone destroyed one of our minibuses,” it said.
“We are very thankful that no one was hurt as a result, especially as the fire occurred next to our residential centre which was full of sleeping children and teachers.
“This is a real blow at the beginning of 2020 to our little charity. Huge thanks, as ever, to the fire service, who did a sterling job.”
Several Facebook users vented their anger at the offence, as well as offering donations or suggesting ways to replace the vehicle.
One person wrote: “Awful – and how terrifying for those children and teachers. I hope they are all OK and no lasting impact from this incident.”
Another posted: “Shocking. So sad that someone would try and stop the amazing opportunity and support you give so many people to enjoy and learn about our beautiful local countryside.
“Hopefully a kind person will help you find a solution moving forwards.”
The CET’s deputy chief executive officer, Anna Barnard, and he husband Steve, who live on-site, were alerted to the blaze when a firefighters knocked on their door in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
Speaking to the A&T on Thursday, Mrs Barnard said: “It’s just upsetting and disappointing that something like this would happen.
“It’s not a nice feeling to know these people have been on the site and done something like this. It’s irresponsible and unkind.
“One of my biggest concerns was that the vehicle was parked right next to the biomass building for the heating of the centre, which is powered by woodchip.”
The deputy explained that the targeted bus was an older vehicle that had had its seats removed in order to transport animal feed, tools and other equipment for the farmland site.
As none of the other minibuses used for the trust’s children are suitable for transporting the farm equipment, some staff have been using their own vehicles for this purpose, which Mrs Barnard said was not ideal.
“We will have to have a think about what we will do to replace the vehicle and, obviously, financial implications will be involved as we are a charity.”
Praising the quick response by the fire service, Mrs Barnard also said the CED had been heartened by the support shown by the local community of Beaulieu.
“They have been very sympathetic to our cause,” she said. “Many people in Beaulieu have been in touch to check if we are OK.
“At the end of the day, no one was hurt and none of the main buildings went up, so we should be grateful for that, I guess.”
Anyone with information should contact Hampshire police on 101, quoting crime reference number 44200008357, or call Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.