A FIRE at a Leamington art gallery brought much of the town centre to a standstill today (Friday May 25).
Firefighters were called to Warwick Studios Fine Arts in Warwick Street at 1.25pm, where fire had started in the ground floor of the gallery.
Nobody was hurt, but by the time the fire was put out, eight fire engines and a Simon snorkel aerial rescue pump had been called in and a road block extended across several streets.
The fire is thought to have begun on the ground floor of the gallery and spread to the first floor, with firefighters battling to prevent it reaching the uppermost storey.
Lee White of Ryton-on-Dunsmore was leaving the Royal Priors shopping centre car park when he saw the blaze.
He said: “I saw flames blazing from the top and smoke billowing over the top of the buildings, and 30 seconds later two fire engines pulled up.
“The whole of the street was covered in smoke like a thick fog.”
Early in the operation, thick, mustard-coloured smoke poured out of the doorway of the shop. A fireman crouched with a hose would direct jets inside, but it was hard to tell whether it was having any effect.
Staff and customers were evacuated from Âme Soeur restaurant in Warwick Street. Jack Barrett, front of house, said: “There was just white smoke for about 45 minutes. We had to take our customers out and then got told we had to stay out. Eventually there was thick black smoke coming out everywhere.”
Fire crews used thermal imaging cameras and firefighters wearing breathing apparatus eventually went into the shop.
Smoke from the doorway abated, but continued to pour from the roof behind the shops.
Firefighters brought in a ladder to climb onto the roof above Barney’s Toy Shop in Park Street, and later used a Simon snorkel to direct water down onto the blaze.
Jonathan Broom, owner of Barney’s, was among many anxious traders.
Along with staff at neighbouring Martanne hairdressers, he had left his premises when smoke was sucked in through extractor fans.
He said: “It came through, literally thick, mustard-coloured smoke that came in and sank immediately to the ground.
“When we went upstairs and looked out of the stock room windows it appeared to be coming from the end of our building and the end of the Wall’s building.”
Unable to go back into his shop, he was anxious to know whether his stock had been damaged.
He said: “I don’t know if the smoke has got into my stock rooms, or if the fire has spread.”
Mr Broom said he did not know how far the fire had spread and how much damage smoke had caused.
He said it would be hard for firefighters to gauge the extent of the fire.
“It’s a bit of a rabbit warren, all higgledy-piggledy with different roof levels and many extensions.”
The blaze was an interesting diversion for many Friday afternoon shoppers out enjoying the sun.
As more fire engines arrived, crowds gathered across the road from the shop were moved further and further back.
A road block was set up initially between Oxford Street and Chandos Street, but later extended down Park Street and Chandos Street and as far as Guy Street.
Wall’s owner Brian Wall was one of many business owners concerned about how far the blaze had spread.
He said: “It must be a nightmare for the firefighters. These are old buildings and it’s very difficult to gain access to the backs of them.”
He added: “It was very worrying, but it seems to be under control. The firemen were very quick to respond.”