A COACH hire company has been left devastated by a blaze that claimed more than half its fleet.

As reported yesterday, explosions and flames more than 40ft high caused tens of thousands of pounds worth of damage to coaches at the family-run firm.

Hedge End-based Barfoot and Sons is now counting the cost after an accidental fire at its operating centre swept from one vehicle to the next.

Three coaches and three minibuses were gutted and another minibus was partially damaged in the fire at an operating centre for trucks, buses and coaches, off Upper Northam Drive in Hedge End.

Steve Barfoot, company director of the small family coach and minibus hire firm which owns 11 vehicles, said the scene when he got there was “a fireball” and described it as an “act of God”.

“The trouble is the wind can be quite strong up there and one vehicle on fire engulfed them all,” he said.

“We’re gutted, it’s pretty devastating – it’s not a very good start to 2013.”

Mr Barfoot said he was yet to get hold of insurers, but said the damage would run into tens of thousands of pounds.

He had been told by emergency services that the blaze was caused by an electrical fault in one vehicle and the fire had spread from one to the other closely parked vehicles.

However, he said he did not expect it to affect the company’s services as they were not busy at present and added they do not run school services.

Fire engines from Hightown, St Mary’s and a water carrier from Eastleigh attended at 5.45pm on Saturday to find an intense fire.

Hightown crew manager Ryan Matthews said there had been initial concern that the plume of smoke from the fire could be blown towards the nearby M27 motorway, but firefighters said they had quickly managed to get it sufficiently under control.

They remained at the fire for around four hours.

Following an investigation, the fire service said it was satisfied that the fire was accidental and there were no suspicious circumstances.

José Berrow, 77, who lives nearby, said the flames reached 40 feet and one of her tenants had spotted it and rang the emergency services.

She said as the site would have been deserted at night so it was lucky that someone raised the alarm.

“It could have been worse. I reckon the whole lot would have gone,” she said.

Dave Smith, 75, who lives opposite the site, said: “We watched it spread along and there were a lot of explosions.”

His wife Marion, 71, said: “I heard bangs and thought somebody’s got a new year celebration.

“I looked out the window and there was a big fire. When there was a bang there was an enormous burst each time of black smoke.

The wind was whipping up and it was sweeping towards the motorway – we thought they would shut the motorway.”

Forty-one-year-old resident Louise Jessop saw the flames from the window.

“We did wonder whether we’d be evacuated. It was definitely a serious fire,” she added.