NEIGHBOURS have described their nightmare after Christmas as firefighters told them to leave the area because explosive gas cylinders could destroy their homes.
A 200-metre cordon was drawn around a blazing garage in High Street, Berkhamsted, and everyone who lived within it was evacuated from their homes.
Firefighters rushed to the scene from as far as Hertford after the emergency call-out at about 5.30pm on Boxing Day.
The High Street was closed and workers in Total petrol station, opposite the fire, were told to leave.
The Roper family, who live in Tweed Close – right behind the garage – had just finished their dinner at about 6.30pm when they were asked to leave.
Marcus Roper, 38, said: “We could see the flames coming out of the garage roof and it was really hot in the house. We ran out and jumped in the car to get away.”
Firefighters thought gas cylinders containing acetylene, which mechanics mix with oxygen for welding, could cause a major incident.
Speaking on Monday, Dick Lawrence, watch commander at Hemel Hempstead fire station, said: “The way acetylene reacts when mixed with fire can create a major explosion. If it is involved in a fire, we have to treat it as a missile.”
Smoke was still coming from the garage when the Roper family returned from their overnight stay at the Watermill Hotel in London Road, Berkhamsted, on Monday.
Marcus’ wife Sarah, 30, said: “We have all had the flu as well, so it has just been an absolute nightmare. It’s just been one disaster after another.
“Could it really get any worse? Last night, we were chilling out for the first time this Christmas, and then we got evacuated. How marvellous.”
But for their daughter Abi, a seven-year-old pupil of Greenway First and Nursery School, it was quite an educational experience.
Marcus said: “They have been studying how children where evacuated during the war. She now has direct experience of it!”
Sarah and Marcus’ father, 63-year-old John, both asthmatics, now have to use their inhalers whenever they walk into the back garden.
Many householders were moved into the Sportspace sports centre in Douglas Gardens, Berkhamsted, while the area was made safe.
But brave ex-RAF man James McClelland, of Tweed Close, refused to be moved.
James, who is in his 80s, said: “They wanted me to go, but I was quite happy to stay here. It was dark and you know what the weather’s like.
“I have had a few explosions in my time from the services, so I wasn’t too worried.”
Six fire engines from stations including Tring, Hemel Hempstead, St Albans, Markyate, Garston, Watford and Rickmansworth dealt with the flames and the cordon was lifted at around midnight.
People were allowed back into their homes and High Street was reopened.
Nobody was injured, but the building was badly damaged.