Roads were closed and homes evacuated after a fire broke out in a workshop behind a row of terraced houses in Barnstaple last night.
Police and fire crews were called to the scene at the corner of Rolle Street and Pottington Road shortly after 10pm after residents reported thick, black smoke billowing from the property.
Police closed nearby roads, including Pottington Road, Rolle Street, Fair View and Mill Road, and put a 100m cordon in place while firefighters battled to get the flames under control.
The fire started in a large workshop building situated at the rear-end of a terraced property, on the corner junction of Rolle Street and Pottington.
Police said the workshop and adjoining house were unoccupied when the fire broke out and said nobody had been living in the house since the tenants moved out around three to four weeks ago.
Fire crews from Barnstaple, Braunton, Bideford and Ilfracombe attended the scene along with ten police officers.
There were initial fears of gas cylinders in the workshop which forced police to keep roads closed and a cordon in place for some time. Properties were not officially evacuated by police although residents were advised to go and stay with friends or relatives elsewhere if they wished to leave the area.
The property on the other side of where the workshop fire broke out was also empty at the time of the incident, although a nearby resident contacted the homeowners to alert them to the fire.
Bonnie McDonald, 20, who lives in the neighbouring house to where the fire started with her mum Tracie and sister Hollie, raced back to the house to rescue the family’s two cats.
She said: “We were driving back from Torrington when I got a phone call from one of our neighbours who said “I think your house is on fire”.
“We came back as quick as we could and ran in and rescued our cats, Mickey and Poppy. One of them kept trying to run behind the sofa but I had to grab him and get out of there. It was really smoky inside.
“We were told we should leave the house because of possible gas canisters in the workshop so we ran over to our neighbour’s house with the cats.”
Nobody was injured in the fire, and both of the rescued cats were also said to be unharmed.
Several neighbours stood in the doorway of their properties as firefighters worked to extinguish the blaze.
Michele Jenkins, 41, who lives five doors down from where the fire started, was going to bed when she heard noises which sounded like “fireworks” outside.
She explained: “I was just getting into bed when I heard what sounded like fireworks popping. I did wonder whether it was people just in the street messing around but then my son came in and said, “mum, what’s that noise?”
“We looked outside and saw the smoke. Thank god there weren’t any gas cylinders in there. That would’ve been a catastrophe. It’s happened on a row of terraced house and it’s always a worry with those. You worry it’s all going to go. I’m just glad everyone was safe and not too many people were disturbed.”
Engineers from Western Power were called to the scene to isolate the electricity supply to the workshop and a building inspector was also called to check whether the building was still structurally sound after a crack developed at the gable end.
Fire crews confirmed it was not in danger of collapsing but said the contents of workshop was 100% damaged by the fire.
Watch manager Pete Merrilees confirmed no gas cylinders were found in the workshop and said the fire didn’t spread to any neighbouring properties.
He said: “We got called to a building fire at around 10.10am in Rolle Street. Upon arrival, there was a lot of smoke in the area and the fire was in a stone-wall workshop to the rear of a property. At the height of the fire we had four main jets and six sets of breathing apparatus in use.
“Crews worked well to stop the fire spreading to any other properties and managed to contain it just to the workshop. Due to the type of building it is we are always concerned of what might be inside, such as propane cyclinders etc. just because of the nature of the building.
“At this stage the cause is unknown but it is not being treated as suspicious.”
A fire investigation officer carried out an inspection of the premises and confirmed the cause of the fire was unknown.
Fire crews left the scene at around 1.30am but revisited the site this morning to check for any hotspots.
Incident Commander Colin Mills said: "I could see the fire as I was coming down Sticklepath Hill. It was huge. When we got there it was well established. There was a lot of wood, tyres and furniture in the workshop which only added fuel to the fire.
"We got the road closed so we could take water from hydrants in the square and because of the sheer size of the flames. They were leaping about 7ft-8ft high over the roof of the building and big fireballs.
"We didn't know what was inside at first so we fought the fire from the outside. We put a water break - a wall of water - between the workshop property and neighbouring house to stop the heat and flames spreading. This was effective and 100% saved the other properties.
"I was concerned about gas cylinders and I couldn't let crews into the building initially because three-quarters of the roof had collapsed in, the gable end was leaning and there cracks appearing so it wasn't safe.
"Once I identified no risk, I committed crews inside but they only went in as far as it was safe to do so.
"The early and quick actions by the first officer saved the neighbouring property. The crews worked tirelessly for a good, positive outcome. They came from all different stations and everyone pulled together."
Mr Mills confirmed the contents of the workshop is 100% damaged, the roof around 80% damaged and the total building approximately 70%.
Police were today attempting to contact the owner of the property to inform them of the fire. A structural engineer is also revisiting the property today to assess the damage to the building.
Pottington Road remains closed between the B3149 Rolle Street junction and the Mill Road junction.
Several people took to Twitter to share news of the fire and subsequent smoke which covered several roads and properties in Barnstaple.
@SPTFRE posted: "Huge fire in the centre of Barnstaple. Hope everyone's ok. Fire crews all over the place."
And @Taxi_Anne wrote: "Seen on Facebook: "Rolle Street is covered in smoke fire engines every where this is horrid"."