A FIRE which destroyed a family timber business, forcing 40 nearby residents to flee their homes, was started accidentally.

The “inferno”, broke out in Grays Wood, a timber products shop, on Stanley Road, Grays, just before 6pm on Tuesday night.

Fire crews from across south Essex were called to the scene, asking neighbouring residents to evacuate their homes and head for the nearby

Thameside Theatre, which had been set up as temporary refuge.

The blaze was so intense that at one point, the 50 firefighters who battled it for more than three hours, were forced to withdraw to a safer distance.

There had been fears the fire would spread into adjoining terrace houses, but crews braved the flames, which were 30-foot high at times, to contain it. One property, converted into two flats, suffered fire and water damage as a result.

Diversions were put in place, with Stanley Road closed until midday on Wednesday.

An investigation by Essex fire service at daybreak on Wednesday found the fire had been started accidentally.

One resident, Marion Hall, of Bedford Road, was reluctant to evacuate her home but was forced outside as smoke began wafting into the house.

She said: “A police officer asked us to go to the Thameside Theatre and most families who had young children did. But I didn’t want to, this is my home.

“At first, it was scary. I only had to step outside my front door to see the height of the flames.

“I didn’t want to be here early on, but once they had got it under control, it was ok.

“The saddest thing is that that’s somebody’s business, and it’s gone.”

Essex fire service confirmed that a fire at Grays Beach cafe was started on purpose. Arsonists set fire to recycling bins outside the cafe, which spread.