A DEVASTATING fire tore through a barn destroying machinery, damaging overhead power lines and prompting the evacuation of dozens of people.
A series of explosions were heard as the fire took hold at a site at Lower Burton just outside Dorchester last night.
Black smoke which billowed hundreds of feet into the air was seen across the county town.
The heat was so intense that an exclusion zone was set up to protect residents and motorists.
More than 20 residents were evacuated for their own safety and some took shelter at a nearby pub.
No one was injured but the barn and its contents, including a combine harvester, a tractor and about 100 tonnes of hay, were destroyed.
An investigation has been launched.
Dorset Fire and Rescue Service said crews were alerted to Lower Burton Farm, a collection of buildings and industrial units off the Old Sherborne Road between Dorchester and Charminster, at 7.30pm.
More than 40 firefighters in eight fire engines from across West Dorset were involved in fighting the blaze and preventing it spreading to nearby homes and businesses.
Crews saved one of the tractors in the barn by driving it out and two guinea pigs were plucked to safety from a house.
The firefighters used hoses and compressed air foam to bring the fire under control. Water from the nearby River Frome was directed to fight the flames.
Police officers helped to evacuate families and closed off the Old Sherborne Road from Loders to Charminster and Southern Electric isolated the power to dozens of homes as a precaution as the flames were licking power lines.
Temporary generators were set up to give power to residents and phone lines and water supplies were also affected.
A Dorset fire service spokesman said: “Dorset Police were on the scene to help evacuate the residents. On the other side of the barn are some houses that were evacuated.
“There will be an inquiry into the cause of the fire but the main priority was to contain and put out the fire.”
Fire crews remained at the scene all night and into this morning damping down the burning hay and making sure the fire was contained.
There had been concerns about the presence of asbestos in the barn and the dangers it could pose to residents but as asbestos becomes non-hazardous when it is wet, no warnings were issued to the public, the service said.
Many evacuated residents took shelter at the Sun Inn and were allowed home after a few hours.
Exploding tyres and melting insulation
EYEWITNESSES told how they witnessed the fire rage through the barn.
Ian Powell saw the smoke from near Dorset County Hospital in Dorchester at about 7.30pm last night and went to investigate.
Keen photographer Mr Powell, 39, who lives in Dorchester, said: “When I got to the barn it was already well alight.
“There were what looked like bales of hay at the back of the barn as well as a combine harvester and a tractor which were all completely destroyed along with the barn.
A further tractor was rescued by firefighters that had just arrived on scene as I got there.”
He added: “The fire very quickly tore through the structure, threatening nearby homes and the adjacent buildings. “A number of explosions were heard as fuel ignited and tyres exploded under the intense heat.
“The heat from the blaze was fierce and an exclusion zone was set up.
“The power was cut by the power company after a number of power cables were arcing as the insulation had melted and a nearby telephone pole caught alight due to the intense heat.
“Within 10-15 minutes, I was asked to leave the area for my own safety.”
Helen Dent, who lives near Lower Burton Farm, got back from dropping her son at Scouts to find that she could not get back into her home.
She said: “We were stopped at the traffic lights and told we couldn’t go in. One of my dogs was in the house but I managed to get him out through a window.
“We drove back to the pub and all the neighbours were there. We were all together, it is nicer to have people there.”
Mrs Dent said that some families went to stay with family and friends and others took their children to friends’ houses so they would be away from the area.
She saw smoke coming from the barn and the explosions as the farm machinery caught light.
She said: “When the combine harvester went up there were some pretty loud bangs and explosions – it was really horrid.”
Mrs Dent said the power and phone lines as well as the water supply went down for a couple of hours but were back on by 10.30pm last night.
• INCIDENT commander for Dorset Fire and Rescue service Clemm Stanley told how crews could see the raging fire as they approached from Dorchester.
He said: “When we came from Poundbury we could see smoke and that it was a well-developed fire.
“When we arrived on scene crews were already there and doing what they could with the resources available.
“The water supply is quite difficult there so we had to get water from the river. We put a pump in to help.
“We managed to salvage one tractor but everything else was pretty much unsalvageable.
“Our main concern was to stop the fire spreading to the businesses on the left of the barn and the houses on the right.”
He added: “The fire involved electrical cable – there was lots of sparking and arcing – which was quite dangerous.
“The power company isolated the electrical supply to the barn and properties.”
Station manager Stanley said: “The crews did an excellent job stopping the fire spreading.”
Two guinea pigs were also saved from a house near the barn by firefighter Neil Bascombe.