A mother of three has told how her home was gone “within two minutes” of a fire hitting a nearby field as the blaze engulfed an east London village.
Claire Taylor, 40, lost all but her grandfather’s ashes, some photos and clothes when Wennington went up in flames on Tuesday as the UK experienced its hottest temperature on record.
Her family was one of around 90 to be evacuated in Havering as tinder-dry conditions saw devastating fires break out in grassland before tearing through rows of houses.
Residents sought to rescue pets and salvage belongings but some were forced to flee largely empty-handed.
“My husband was on his way back to work and could see the fire was close to us… as he got closer he actually noticed one of our friends… their house went up,” Ms Taylor told the PA news agency.
“So he was in there trying to help them get out as much as they can; they’ve got quite a few pets and stuff.
“Within half an hour they were in our house trying to grab as much as they could but (then) the fire crossed the road… within two minutes of it hitting the field our house was gone.”
Ms Taylor, 40, who works in a charity shop, said residents who had lost their homes were still in shock but “trying to muddle through”.
Although the devastation is still “raw” her focus has turned to collecting donations and helping children affected by the fire, she said.
Her family – including her own sons, Charlie, Alfie and Louie, aged eight, six and one respectively – stayed with loved ones on Tuesday evening before heading to school on Wednesday for the last day of term.
“This should be the start of the six weeks’ holiday. It should be all exciting,” she said.
“We know we’re not the only ones in that situation, so if I can try and get some awareness out there – to let them know there is somewhere they can take stuff, like cots and buggies, to make someone’s life a little bit easier, to put a smile of their little kiddies’ faces – that would mean the world to me.”
Donations can be made at the KidEco shop at Lakeside Shopping Centre in Grays or to Baby Bank HQ.
A GoFundMe page set up to help the Taylor family has already raised more than £3,700 while another for Wennington residents affected by the fire has passed £7,900 in donations.
The first fundraiser, organised by Carly Mcnab, says Ms Taylor’s children were left with only the clothes they wore to school that day after the blaze destroyed their home.
Jon Cruddas, Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham, warned the fires in his constituency were unlikely to be a one-off due to climate change.
He said around 40 homes had been destroyed in Dagenham, adding: “It’s been traumatic both for families and for the communities.
“The evidence suggests this is not a one-off. It’s going to be a recurring feature of modern life given the escalating climactic conditions.”
The Labour MP branded it a “miracle” no one died and criticised the Tories, adding: “We’ve got a debate in the Conservative Party where everyone seems to be running away from net zero commitments.”
Resident Tim Stock likened the wreckage to a scene from the Blitz after his family home of 60 years was wiped out by the fire.
“To see it all fall apart yesterday, it’s really sad. But as I said, we’ll get the site cleared, fit up a kind of mobile home there, and we’ll start again,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live.
“It was like a war zone. Down the actual main road, all the windows had exploded out, all the roofs had caved, it was like a scene from the Blitz, really.”
He believes the fire was caused by “spontaneous combustion” linked to composting from a grass pile in another resident’s back garden.
The resident managed to rescue his dog as he escaped but lost eight chickens and two beehives, instead prioritising alerting neighbours.
Councillor Ray Morgon told Sky News on Wednesday that “around 18 or 19” houses were understood to have been destroyed by the grass fires in Wennington.
He said a housing team was helping people with immediate accommodation needs as a wider housing assessment was being made.
“People’s houses have been devastated, so we realise the world is changing and we’re starting to plan for the future,” he said.
Large parts of the village are still blocked off and emergency services remain at the scene assessing the damage.
Up to 40 hectares of grassland are thought to have been affected as well as houses, outbuildings, a single-storey garage, stables and five cars, London Fire Brigade said.
Dramatic aerial footage from the area captured thick plumes of black smoke billowing from a row of collapsing houses.
But residents praised the work of emergency crews and the community, describing the effort to rally together in the aftermath as “heartwarming”.
A rescue centre has been set up at Wennington Premier Inn for villagers who have been evacuated.
Those left with nothing said people had been “lovely” to them, offering mobile phones and other resources and handing out bottles of water.
“Coming together with the local community, it was really heartwarming,” Mr Stock said.
The capital experienced its worst day for fires since the Second World War on Tuesday as the UK was hit by 40.3C heat – the hottest temperature on record.
It joined Norfolk, Suffolk, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and South Yorkshire on Tuesday in declaring a major incident as fire crews across the country battled a spate of blazes.
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said London Fire Brigade received more than 2,600 calls throughout the day – seven times the usual volume.