Eighty firefighters tackled a large blaze at a thatched property in North Devon this morning.
Fifteen fire crews were sent to the fire at Downwater Cottages at Horns Cross on the A39 near Bideford after the alarm was raised at around 4am.
The occupants of the two-storey cottage managed to escape unharmed after being alerted to the fire by their pet cat.
Because of the number of emergency vehicles at the scene, and the sheer size of the blaze, the A39 was closed to traffic for most of the day.
A total of 15 fire appliances from Bideford, Barnstaple, Hartland, Ilfracombe, Hatherleigh, Holsworthy, South Molton, Appledore, Torrington, and Honiton were sent to the fire.
The fire service said crews arrived on scene and found one thatched property well alight.
It is understood the fire broke out in the middle cottage on a row of a couple of properties, which are situated on the main road approximately one mile along from The Hoops Inn and Country House Hotel.
Firefighters used several hose reel jets, two covering jets and compressed air foam to tackle the fire.
They remained at the scene for the majority of today and said they were making good progress with salvage operations and firefighting.
It is believed the fire started in the thatched roof of the cottage, which straddles over two properties. The neighbouring property, which was unoccupied at the time, was relatively unaffected by the flames and only suffered heat and smoke damage.
However, the property where the fire broke out has been severely damaged by fire. The incident commander confirmed the thatched roof was 100% destroyed by the fire, while the first-floor was 90% damaged and the ground-floor 60%. He said it would be “some time” before the occupants were able to move back into the house again.
Despite the extensive damage to the property, fire crews managed to salvage approximately 90% of the couple’s belongings. Firefighters removed furniture and possessions from the property while it was being ravaged by fire.
The occupants of the cottage, Mr and Mrs Wilcox, were assisted by The Red Cross Fire and Emergency Support Service and are expected to be offered alternative accommodation.
Maxine Wilcox, 48, said: “It has been such a shock this morning. As soon as we realised what was happening we got out of the cottage and called the fire brigade. I’m just glad the cat woke me up.”
Although the fire has now been extinguished, fire crews remain at the scene to dampen down hotspots and remove the burnt thatch from within the property.
Jeff Harding, who was the incident commander overnight, said he was "proud" of crews who battled the blaze.
He said: “The fire was in the roof, we knew it was in the roof and we knew we could not tackle it at that point because if we tried we would have lost the building.
“Our focus was on moving the personal belongings of the occupier while trying to stop the fire spreading into the extensions either side of the thatched property.”
“I am really proud of what the crews here have done and how hard they have worked to save the extensions and as many belongings as possible.”
Engineers from Western Power Distribution were called to the scene to isolate electricity supply to the property.
A building inspector was also called to check the stability of the property, however the fire service confirmed the building was structurally sound and not in danger of collapsing.
Colin Mills, who took over as the fire service’s incident commander this morning, said most of the damage was done by 7am but said crews would remain on scene throughout the day to clear the debris and stop any re-ignition.
He said: “There’s still a few hotspots so two crews are still here and they are making sure we don’t get any re-ignition. We’ve also got several thermal imaging cameras in the building, checking for hotspots.
“We’ve got to remove all of the thatch which has fallen in on the top floor. It’s really thick and still smouldering so we are raking it out of the property, hosing it down and turning it over. We’re making steady progress.”
Mr Mills said the firefighters had worked “tirelessly” throughout the night to tackle the blaze and stop it spreading.
He said: “It’s relentless. It’s not a five minute fix. Once you’ve saved the people you’ve got to tackle the fire, salvage belongings and do the clear up. It’s a dirty job and hard work. The crews here are quite tenacious. They don’t give up. They’ve been working hard.”
Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service carried out an investigation into the cause of the fire and deemed it to be accidental. They confirmed working alarms were fitted in the property. A further investigation of the chimney will now be carried out by the fire service and insurance investigators.
The A39 was closed in both directions between the East Road junction in Kilkhampton and Northam in Bideford for several hours. It was reopened by 5pm.