A DEVASTATING fire which left three Kendal families homeless just weeks before Christmas has been met with ‘phenomenal’ support across south Lakeland.

The blaze started in the home of pregnant mother-of-five Claire Holden and her partner Tim Graham on Sandylands Road last Wednesday night.

Five fire crews were called to tackle the inferno as neighbours watched flames billowing from the roof.

Kendal station manager Steve Sharrock said the call came in just after 10.30pm, with fire engines quickly at the scene.

"When turning into Sandylands Road, the incident commander noticed large flames and lots of smoke so quickly called for additional resources," he said.

"On arrival they were faced with a severe fire that had already broken through the roof."

Fire-fighters also entered the adjacent houses to stop the blaze spreading along the row of four homes.

He said Mr Graham reported a fault with the lights in the bathroom which he had isolated earlier in the evening.

"Later he heard a crackle and when he looked into the attic, saw a fire had started to take hold," he said.

There was major fire damage to the upstairs and roof space of the house.

There was also extensive smoke damage to the other houses, and water damage to the first floor of two homes.

Crews worked for several hours to contain the blaze and brought in a specialist aerial ladder platform from Barrow to help put the final flames out.

Council gritters were also called to the house on as water running onto the road turned to ice in freezing temperatures.

As well as Ms Holden expecting a baby girl in February, the family includes two daughters aged 14 and three, and sons aged 10, seven and 12-months old.

Next door neighbours Neil and Jennifer Armstrong, with daughter Anya, 11, and their son Max, 2, described their own ordeal.

Mrs Armstrong said Anya who raised the alarm after she smelt smoke in her bedroom but they sent her back to bed believing it was a bonfire outside.

"She then came back, saying her room was filling with smoke.

"We ran upstairs to Anya’s bedroom and there was smoke creeping through the hatch to the loft.

"My husband had a look to see if the fire was in our roof and it was thick with smoke.

"He couldn’t see anything but could hear a crackling noise and realised it was next door.

"We got the kids and drove up the road to keep them out of the way. We also got Claire and Tim’s kids and bundled them into the car."

The family lost all their Christmas presents as they were stored in the loft.

They are now living in rented a house on Windermere Road, but Mrs Armstrong says they are not settled at all for Christmas.

"We were insured so we can claim everything back, but it takes a long time," she said.

"The house is quite small and Max keeps asking when we can go home. It is heartbreaking."

Damage in their house was focused on Anya's room, meaning most of her clothes and belongings are not salvageable.

There is also water damage and the family has been told the first floor ceiling and roof will need replacing.

But Mrs Armstrong said the family remains resolute.

"I grew up with fantastic grandparents who were very old-fashioned and would say pull your socks up and get on with it, so I am not going to fall apart over it.

"I am just thinking systematically about it and what do we need to do next. My mum Lynne lives in an extension we’ve just built on the side of the house.

"It was untouched by the fire because the loft space was separate, but a lot of her treasured possessions were stored in the attic and destroyed by the fire.

"There were old photos and old cameras which her dad had passed on to her, and he died a few years ago.

"Anya has been very emotional, worrying about school because her school books were burned. She is also worried it might happen again. We’ve organised a councillor for her at school and she hasn’t been sleeping brilliantly."

Cyril Jenkinson, 68, who lives two doors away from the fire has not had to move out, but has been left with smoke damage and a layer of black ash over his furniture and carpets.

He said he was lucky that he was not in bed at the time of the fire, having decided to go out.

"I came home about 10.15pm and made a cup of coffee but without going upstairs.

"Soon after I heard a commotion outside and the fire service knocked on my door and told me to get out.

"Upstairs was full of smoke coming through the roof, which I hadn’t noticed. I was worried that the house was going to go.

"Smoke was billowing out of the eaves. It was scary to watch, with fire shooting up in the air.

"It is really just a bad end to the year; I am still dealing with my wife dying earlier this year."

The day after the fire a huge community effort kicked in to help the families, which also include a couple whose house is for sale and have had to stay in a hotel.

A Facebook group set up to co-ordinate donations gained more than 400 members, with pledges of a whole variety of furniture, clothing and toys.

Shops in the town which have donated items to the families include Boyes, Home Bargains, Body Shop, WHSmith, ASDA and Homebase.

Director of Westmorland Shopping Centre, Alan Green has also offered his support to the families affected.

"We want to buy Christmas present for the children and anything that the parents need," he said. "We would like to help all of the people who have been affected.

"There is also storage space here at the shopping centre if they need it. I just urge them to get in touch and we’ll help them in any way we can."

With three of the affected children pupils at Castle Park Primary School, staff soon launched their own appeal.

Head teacher Helen Richardson said: "I wrote to parents and asked if they could help with clothes and toys, particularly for the children.

"We have been absolutely inundated and it is a testament to just how wonderful the families of all of our children are.

"It is really tragic for all concerned; we just want them to have a house and be settled before Christmas. It is so upsetting; I can’t imagine what they’re going through.

"We are supporting the kids from day to day, as they need it. They have their friends around them who care a lot."

Staff at Queen Katherine School said they will also be offering their support to the families with children at the school.

And there has been massive help from Sandylands Methodist Church, where volunteers have coordinated drop-off of donations.

Jonny Gios, a community worker from the church, said he had been overwhelmed by the response of both Kendalians and people from across the whole area who had heard about the families’ plights.

"With Mrs Richardson we appealed for donations for the families through a letter to parents and through a Facebook page that was started by one of our church members.

"Within a few hours we were receiving promises of clothes, books, towels - you name it people were offering it.

"We have received so much for the families that we have had to put a hold on items.

"It has been amazing to see so many people give so much in such a short space a time. I would like to thank our community and communities as far as Kirkby Lonsdale and Ambleside in supporting these families in such a powerful way.

"This is what community is, and I believe the church needs to be at the heart of helping those in need, whatever their situation."

Proceeds from a 'rummage sale' at the church on Saturday afternoon will also go to the families affected.

Mr Sharrock called on householders to ensure they have working smoke alarms, and said anyone can request a free home fire risk assessment by calling 0800 358 4777.

"I cannot emphasise enough if anyone discovers a fire in their property they should get out as quickly as possible, stay out and call us out," he added.