AROUND 100 people were evacuated and a main trunk road closed after an inferno ripped through a fuel depot near Billingshurst last night (August 19).
More than 50 firefighters scrambled to Four Seasons Farm at Coneyhurst just before 10pm and quickly established a 200m cordon.
However, as the severity of the fire became apparent, this was extended to 600m about half an hour later.
Gas canisters and other hazardous materials stored on the site meant a large number of people from nearby residential properties had to be evacuated to Billingshurst Village Hall - which had been opened up as a rest centre by Horsham District Council - and the Selsey Arms pub in Coolham.
Meanwhile, a multi-agency operation between emergency services and local authorities was quickly put in place.
A South East Air Support Unit helicopter provided downlink video of the incident to assist fire officers in their assessment of the scale of the blaze.
One evacuated resident was Mark Betts, a local businessman who’s company - Universal Trailers - and home are based on land ajoining the fuel depot.
At the time he was attending a party with around 50 to 60 guests on his property just yards away from the blazing inferno.
He said: “The first I knew about it was around 10.30pm when somebody tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘look - is that your office alight?’.
“My initial reaction was one of fear for my business, my livelihood. People at the party were quite frightened.
“I went round to my business premises and as I walked there I could hear the crackling and feel the heat, and then you could hear the gas bottles exploding and then hissing as they flew off - it was like gun shots.
“When I got there I realised it wasn’t us.
“The fire brigade came really fast but at first it was just too dangerous for them to go in so they just watched it burn.”
The owners of Four Seasons Fuel Limited, a family run business with three generations in the industry, are currently abroad.
Two male family members, who were looking after the house at the time of the blaze, were reported to be ‘in floods of tears’.
“We feel really sorry for them, it’s three generations of families and it’s all gone up in smoke,” said Mr Betts.
The party-goers were evacuated via police riot vans to the Selsey Arms pub, based at Coolham crossroads off the A272, from 11pm to 12pm.
Francet Du Plessis, pub Manager, said: “Police escorted a large group here and when we saw them come in we kept the pub open so they had somewhere to stay.
“Two guests stayed overnight here - free of charge - because they couldn’t get back and had no where to go.
“We ordered taxis for the rest of the guys to get home and they were all gone by 2.30am.
“We didn’t mind at all, I would expect someone to help us out if we were in need - it’s a small community and we’ve got to look after each other.”
Sussex Police kept a section of the A272 closed until 2.15pm this afternoon (Saturday August 20).
No casualties have been reported and all residents have now returned to their homes ‘at their own risk’.
There is no indication of the cause of the fire at this stage, say police.
Steve Clack, West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service’s deputy district commander for Horsham, said: “The first crews on the scene were faced with a significant and well-developed fire so an immediate decision was made, working with Sussex Police, to set up a safety cordon to ensure public and firefighter safety.
“Crews have made steady progress throughout the night and I’m pleased to say that the fire is now out.
“We anticipate that fire crews will remain in attendance throughout the day to assist the fire investigation officers as their investigation into the cause of this fire can now begin.”
Inspector Paul Williams, of Sussex Police, said: “This has obviously caused major disruption and upheaval and I should like to thank everyone affected for their co-operation and patience.
“Thankfully, nobody has been injured in this incident and people have now returned safely to their homes.”