FEARS a burning gas cylinder could explode sparked a massive evacuation leaving hundreds of people temporarily homeless.
Dozens of police officers rushed to the Birkby area of Huddersfield yesterday morning to get residents out of their homes after a gas canister was set alight on land at Miln Road just off St John’s Road.
Police sealed off a 200m exclusion zone shortly after 11am as fire officers tackled the blazing canister.
Police officers guarded entrances to every road and alley as homes and businesses on St John’s Road, between Osborne Road and Blacker Road, were evacuated.
Eye witnesses said the emergency was caused after suspected scrap metal thieves tried to cut the valve off a large gas bottle with an angle grinder.
It is thought scrap dealers refuse to take the bottles if they believe any gas could still be inside.
Police later recovered a vehicle suspected to have been involved in the fire and a male driver was arrested.
The evacuation meant customers at Dominos hair salon were forced to leave mid-cut and families were barred from returning home for vital supplies.
A local school was temporarily opened up as a rest centre and residents were later transported to Huddersfield Sports Centre where refreshments were provided by the WRVS.
Diversions were set up, but traffic soon ground to a halt as police struggled to manage the mayhem.
Shortly after 3.15pm gas cylinder experts declared the scene safe and police finally lifted the cordon to allow residents to return to their homes.
Mother and son Janet and Jamie Porteous, who run J’s Cafe, said they saw two scruffy men in their late 40s in an old pickup truck trying to take scrap from a property next to the Crazy Maze play-gym.
Jamie, 33, said: “While they were taking that scrap they dumped an acetylene bottle on the ground and released the gas and tried to cut the valve off.
“It set on fire and when they saw the fire brigade turn up they did a runner.
“It was one of the big ones, probably about 30 litres.”
St John’s Road resident Waqas Iqbal, 32, said he had been asleep after a night shift when he was woken up by police.
He said: “They said we had to leave the house and asked if we’ve got anywhere else to go.
“I said I’ve got four kids with me and they said somebody had blown a gas bottle up and they didn’t know how long it was going to be.
“I asked if I could move my car and they said ‘no’.”
Mr Iqbal said he was also concerned for his wife Fhamida as she was diabetic and her medication was still in their house.
Another resident of St John’s Road, Tara Parveen, 39, said: “The police said we had to go outside straight away for our own safety.
“They said it could be eight or nine hours before we could go back.”
“I’m supposed to be going to Scotland today, but I haven’t packed. I don’t know if I should go or just wait to see what happens.”
A West Yorkshire Police spokeswoman confirmed a criminal investigation into the circumstances of the incident was on-going.
She added: “The cylinder has been examined and made safe and the road closures are being lifted.
“Neighbourhood Policing Teams are carrying out reassurance patrols and will remain in the area and residents are now allowed to return to their homes.
“Anyone who was in or around the area immediately before the incident is asked to contact Huddersfield CID on 0845 60 60 606.”
Insp Mohammed Rauf from Huddersfield North Neighbourhood Policing Team put out a special thank you to the mosques at Blacker Road and Halifax Old Road for their help.
A West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service spokesman said: “At 10.56 West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service was called to reports of an acetylene cylinder on fire in waste ground at the junction of Miln Road and Common Road, Birkby, Huddersfield.
“The service has been working closely with a cylinder company at this incident and the cylinder has now been declared safe and is being moved.”
Leader of Kirklees Council Clr Mehboob Kahn, hit out at the actions of those who started the fire.
He said: “They’re risking their lives, and those of hundreds of others for the sake of £20.
“I would like to say thank you to the many people who joined together and dealt with this potentially very serious incident in a calm, measured and efficient way.
“The work of Inspector Mohammed Rauf, was particularly appreciated.”
The evacuation was only a few hundred yards from St John’s Church where scrap metal raiders caused huge damage on July 24 last year.
Metal thieves tried to pull the copper lightning conductor from the steeple by fastening a cable to the conductor, tying one end to a car which drove down the path next to the church pulling the copper from the side of the steeple.
The top of the steeple was pulled off and two tonnes of stone were sent crashing down through the church, causing major damage to the walls, roof, floors, pews, pianos, heating system, carpets and stonework.