PANICKED sunseekers were evacuated from Bournemouth beach after a huge blaze broke out as a group tried to cook inside a beach hut.
The huge blaze engulfed a heath-covered cliff face as hundreds of stunned sunbathers were told to leave the shoreline.
A team of 40 firefighters battled to control the flames which burnt down three beach huts on the promenade and covered 100 square metres of cliff face.
Huge plumes of black smoke billowed across the beach as horrified beach-goers watched on as firefighters climbed up the cliff with hoses.
The blaze is believed to have started when one group tried to cook on a gas stove inside a luxury beach hut.
Huts on the seafront in Bournemouth can cost as much as £100,000.
Police rushed to the scene and closed off the roads leading up to the beach as desperate attempts were made to bring the blaze under control.
Fire officer Andy Cole said: “We believe the fire started accidentally in one of the beach huts due to a cooking accident.
“It spread to another beach hut and because the cliff face is so close to the beach huts went up the hill.”
Witness Jonty Hughes, 22, from Bournemouth, said: “I was about 60ft from it when the fire first started – just inside one beach hut.
“A guy came running out shouting for people to get back as there was a small gas canister down the side of his beach hut.
“He kept shouting for people to get out of the way and when it did reach the gas there were loads of pops, which sounded almost like aerosols.
“The wind pushed the flames up the cliff face and the fire just rose all the way up from there. It was unbelievable.”
Tracey Steadman, a district nurse visiting from Derbyshire, said: “I didn’t hear a bang or anything like that. I just turned around and saw a huge plume of smoke.
“There were flames erupting from one hut and people were forced to leave their possessions on the beach to get away safely.
“There was no time to pack up things like wind-breaks, people just had to abandon them on the sand.
“I saw a few of the other huts catch fire and the wind blew the flames onto the hill which went up so quickly.
“Thankfully we were about 160ft away but the fire was absolutely huge.
“The police arrived within minutes but unfortunately the fire brigade were slightly behind them so by the time they got there, the hill was already in flames.
“Firefighters had to climb onto the hill to try and put it out and after that there was just a huge amount of smoke.”
A beach hut owner, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “The speed of the fire was terrifying.
“It went from 0 to 60 in a few minutes and nothing could be done.
“People were shouting to get away for fear of gas canisters exploding.”
South Western Ambulance Service said there were no reports of any injuries.
The fire was put out by about 5.30pm.
Dorset Police said: “Please avoid the area of the West Cliff lift on Bournemouth’s West Cliff following a beach hut fire, which has spread to nearby beach huts and is moving up the cliff.
“A cordon is in place for the safety of members of the public. We are assisting with the cordon.”
Dorset & Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service said: “We currently dealing with a fire on West Undercliff in Bournemouth, affecting three beach huts and approximately 100 sqm of heath on the cliff face.
“We were called to the scene at 3.51pm and have fire crews in attendance from Redhill Park, Springbourne, Westbourne and Christchurch, together with the aerial appliance from Westbourne. Additional crews are en route.
“The fire is causing significant smoke across the promenade and across West Hill Road.
“People are asked to stay away from the area, and to keep doors and windows closed as a precaution.”
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It comes just weeks after thousands of Brits ignored pleas to stay away by travelling to Bournemouth beach during the heatwave.
Roads were gridlocked, hindering emergency vehicles, and more than 40 tonnes of rubbish were removed from the coastal hotspot in just one day.