A community has been praised for its spirited efforts after a vicious fire threatened to destroy a church and spread to nearby homes.

People living in Milday Terrace in Hartley Wintney leapt into action as a shed fire spread to the Church of St Thomas More on Tuesday (May 17).

They helped firefighters store pews in their gardens and also looked after other items salvaged from the church.

Watch manager Danny Randall, officer in charge of Yateley fire station, said firefighters were called just after 6pm.

“The call came in as a shed fire," he said. "But unfortunately that spread very quickly to the church due to the close proximity of the shed.

“The fire generated enough heat to break the windows of the church. It spread and caught the roof."

Mr Randall said engines from Yateley, Hartley Wintney, Fleet and Odiham attended the blaze, along with an aerial ladder platform from Winchester.

“We carried out salvage work as well as firefighting at the same time,” he added. “Previous experience has taught us that we can lose a lot very quickly in buildings like churches if we are not careful.

“I instigated a salvage operation, which proved to be very good as none of the contents in the church were lost."

Continued Mr Randall: “Every pew was taken out of the church and we also removed bookshelves, Bibles, books and all sorts - we even roped in the public to take the pews and store them safely.

“It took four firefighters to remove an organ, which was put in the church office. Fortunately, that was not affected by the fire. It was good teamwork by everybody involved.

“It was an extraordinary hard-working job and, although the actual church looks horrendous, it’s what we would call a ‘good stop’ because we managed to save quite a lot of the church.

“The roof needs completely rebuilding but apart from that there really wasn’t a lot of damage. The guys worked extremely hard and did a good job.”

'Like a Roman Candle'

Mr Randall said firefighters finally left the scene at around 9.15pm.

“Before we left, we inspected it with a thermal imaging camera," he said. "A Hartley Wintney crew went back at midnight to make sure there was nothing untoward happening."

Mr Randall said the fire was started when a volunteer was burning rubbish in a little bin burner.

“Unfortunately, that was too close to the shed and it caught it alight like a Roman Candle, which then caught the church alight.

“It was a series of unfortunate events that led to the church being damaged. It’s very sad but it’s not as bad as it could have been.

The roof of the church was completely destroyed by the fire

“It looked horrific for a few minutes but due to the quick actions of the firefighters and everyone who was there, we managed to turn it around and save the church.

“It really was a good community effort.”

Mr Randall said the parish priest, Father Simon Thomson, was at the scene for "quite some time".

“We spoke to him and he was happy that no one was injured and no lives were in danger,” he added.

“Obviously he was saddened because of the damage to the church but was very grateful for what everyone did.”

'Watering can'

Eyewitness Matthew Hook, 36, who lives a few doors away from the church in Mildmay Terrace, said he was alerted to the fire just after 6pm.

“I had been washing up and heard a loud crackling noise,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what was going on so popped out and saw the shed on fire.

“The caretaker was attempting to put the fire out with a watering can, which I thought was a little ineffective and insufficient.

“So a neighbour grabbed a hose and put it onto an outside tap and threw it over to the caretaker.”

Mr Hook said it was then the firefighters arrived, just as it looked like the flames might spread to the home nearest the church in Milday Terrace.

He said he took the garden hose and sprayed water down the side wall as a precaution.

The fire came closed to catching nearby homes

“The wind was blowing very clearly in that direction but thankfully the fire brigade was on top of things by then," he said.

Mr Hook said residents helped move around 25 pews from the church and stored them in their gardens.

“The local residents of the terrace pulled together and helped rescue as much as we could,” he added. "It was a very sad event but it was nice to see the community pulling together to help everyone out.”

Mr Hook, a manager at property management company Aldershot Property, said the roof of the church was "very badly burned".

“The roof will need to be entirely rebuilt,” he added. “Obviously there is a lot of work to be done over the next few months.

“I’ve lived here four years and it’s about as quiet and uneventful a place to live as imaginable so this really was quite something.

“Another neighbour on the terrace has lived here for the best part of 40 years and said they had never seen anything like it. It was quite a shock to the system.”

'Investigation ongoing'

Mr Hook said firefighters did a "fantastic" job.

“One of the neighbours, Paul Frankland, is a member of Hartley Wintney fire station. He wasn’t on duty but spun into action and got cars out of the way when the roof was coming off," said Mr Hook.

“It was good to have someone with such excellent knowledge so close at hand.”

Mr Hook said Tony Hart and Charlotte Smith, the people in the house closest to the church, are due to get married at the end of July.

Crews were on the scene for more than three hours battling the blaze

“Charlotte was worried that all her wedding plans and organisation would literally go up in smoke,” he added.

“My wife Leah is due to give birth to our first baby on June 1 and we were a bit worried all the drama might get things moving, but thankfully not.”

A spokesman for Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service said crews wore eight sets of breathing apparatus and used two jets and three hose reels to put out the fire.

“Crews worked hard to put the fire out but the roof was completely destroyed,” he added. “A fire investigation into the cause is ongoing.”