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The Exeter Fire

The incident in Cathedral Yard on 28 October 2016 has been described as the largest fire in Exeter since the Second World War. Fire crews were at the scene for more than a week and 95 different fire engines were there for at least part of the time.

The news was broadcast around the world and generated a great deal of interest both locally and from further afield. People who live in Exeter in particular were saddened by the loss of the Royal Clarence Hotel but also grateful that the fire was prevented from spreading to other historically important buildings in the High Street and St Martin’s Lane. No one was hurt as a result of the fire.

Understandably, people had questions about how the fire service tackled the fire and what resources were used as part of the operation. The Service produced a report of the incident to provide the communities of Devon and Somerset with the facts around the incident. That report can be viewed here.

Cathedral Yard Fire review

On 28 January 2019 the Service asked the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) to peer review the report and its findings. This was to provide an independent view from people who understand operational tactics and reporting. Read the Terms of Reference for the Review.

On 20 December 2019 the independent review by The National Fire Chief’s Council (NFCC) was published and can be read here.

Update following publication of the NFCC Review

Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service were very sad to see the loss of the Royal Clarence Hotel. Fortunately, due to the swift actions of the hotel staff in raising the alarm and evacuating the hotel, no one was killed or injured.

Once inside the Royal Clarence our firefighters faced unsafe conditions after a wall collapsed and a firefighter nearly fell into the fire in the gallery next door. The decision to swiftly withdraw crews due to unsafe conditions was correct. Our firefighters tackled a very difficult blaze that was unpredictable and risked spreading to the whole of the high street. Something we successfully prevented.

Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service decided to produce a report into the Cathedral Yard fire due to the significant interest in the incident, particularly around fire behaviour in historic buildings. The report involved interviewing many staff who were at the incident. This was the first time we had produced a public facing report.

We asked the National Fire Chief’s Council (NFCC) to independently review our report following an allegation made by the Sector Commander, who was responsible for the Royal Clarence area on the night of the fire. He claimed that parts of his account of the incident were purposefully kept out of the report.

The allegation also implied that the fire which spread into the Royal Clarence Hotel was not previously identified or covered in other independent reports.

Experienced fire officers working on behalf of the NFCC and reviewed their information collected by interviewing 21 people who either witnessed or were involved in the incident. Accounts were checked against each other to build an accurate picture of what happened. They also requested to speak with the Sector Commander for the Royal Clarence area, who declined to be interviewed.

The NFCC review has found that there was no cover up in the findings and that the spreading of the fire most likely took place through hidden voids at the rear of the building.

Assistant Chief Fire Officer, for Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service, Alex Hanson explained: “We are a learning organisation and we wanted to look at how we could further learn and improve. There are a number of valuable points raised in the NFCC review, which we will take on board.”


Alex added: “The review has also provided the reassurance of the integrity of our reporting process. Nothing in the review detracts away from the efforts of our firefighters who dealt with the fire. We care deeply about the safety of our firefighters and will not put them at unnecessary risk, particularly when there are no lives to be saved.”


Summary of the main events on 28 October 2016

Where did the fire start?

The fire started in the building at 18 Cathedral Yard in the early hours of Friday 28 October 2016. The Service received the first 999 call at 5.11am. The incident was declared a Major Incident at 5.42am.

How many 999 calls did the Service receive?

The Service’s Fire Control received 54 emergency calls about the fire.

When did the fire service get there?

The first appliance was ordered at 5.12am and arrived at the scene six minutes later, at 5.18am. The first appliance to attend was crewed by on-call firefighters from Danes Castle Fire Station. The wholetime crew from Danes Castle was attending a serious road traffic collision on the A30 at the time of the fire. Some of the initial calls reported a fire in the High Street so a number of the initial appliances to attend went to High Street so may not have been immediately visible from Cathedral Yard.

When did the rest of the fire engines get there?

There were four fire appliances at the scene within 20 minutes of the 999 call, 15 fire appliances had attended within 53 minutes.


How many firefighters were there overall?

At the height of the incident, there were around 150 firefighters actively involved in the firefighting operation and 207 firefighters were at the scene at the same time during one hand-over period. There were around 100 firefighters at the scene for the first three days of the incident around the clock.

How many fire appliances were there overall?

At the height of the incident, 27 pumping appliances were actively involved in the firefighting operation. During one hand-over period, there were 57 fire service vehicles at the scene, including 38 pumping appliances (fire engines). There were four aerial appliances at the scene at the same time.

Did the Service scale down its attendance?

The fire service presence at the incident quickly rose to 15 pumping appliances within 53 minutes which is a standard response to a fire of that severity. Due to reports from the police that not everyone had identified as having evacuated safely, five additional appliances were mobilised for resources and breathing apparatus so that firefighters could search the hotel room by room and carry out rescues as required. Fortunately, there were no members of the public left inside the building. When the search and rescue operation was completed the attendance returned to 15 appliances and then increased again when required. More information will be provided in our report following the debrief.

Why did the fire spread into the Royal Clarence Hotel?

Subject to investigation, we believe the fire spread through voids and spaces created by the age and proximity of the buildings, the materials used in and the nature of the construction of the old, complex and timber-built buildings involved. We believe these factors enabled the fire to spread through the adjacent inter-connected buildings of the Well House public house and Royal Clarence Hotel, built in 1791. We had crews fighting the fire and attempting to stop fire spread from inside the Royal Clarence throughout the incident and will be able to give more details on tactics following the debrief.

What were the Service's priorities?

The Service's first priority at an incident is always to save lives and then to protect property. Once the search and rescue operation had established that everyone had been accounted for inside the hotel, the priority was to protect the series of historically important buildings which surrounded initially 18 Cathedral Yard and then the Royal Clarence Hotel from lateral fire spread. Advice from a local historian informed the Service's plan as to the most historically significant buildings.

The Service worked with other agencies to keep the impact on the community as low as possible and protect public safety from the smoke plume and potential structural collapse of affected buildings.

Was the gas supply a problem?

The gas supply involved in the fire added to the complexity of the firefighting operation and the potential risks to the firefighters involved. Gas engineers worked extremely hard to turn off the gas supply to the Royal Clarence Hotel. In order to isolate the gas supply, pipes had to be capped in three different places, one of which required drilling through concrete to make it safe.

Why did it take so long to put out?

Having completed the search and rescue operation, the construction of the ancient buildings involved and the intensity of the fire led to an extremely challenging and complex incident. Due to the likelihood of roof and building collapse presenting a risk to firefighter safety, firefighting had to be carried out from outside the building. This was the most significant building fire in Devon or Somerset for many years.

Was there a lack of water?

The fire hydrants performed as expected throughout the incident. However as the incident progressed the number of pumping appliances being used at the incident started to overwhelm the water supply from High Street so a High Volume Pump was used to draw water direct from the River Exe. A pump on one of the appliances which was supplying water to an aerial appliance failed while at the scene and it took approximately 20 mins for it to be replaced. Firefighting tactics were adjusted to account for this and crews continued to fight the fire whilst the aerial was not in use. More information on firefighting tactics will be available in the full report.

What was done to save other heritage buildings in the area?

There are a number of shops and buildings directly connected to the Royal Clarence Hotel. Throughout the incident crews worked tirelessly to prevent the fire spreading to these and many other surrounding buildings. A large number of firefighters wearing breathing apparatus tackled the fire from inside the rear of the row of shops in High Street which are directly adjacent to the rear of the affected buildings in Cathedral Yard (including Laura Ashley and Costa Coffee). Many other historically important buildings in the immediate area were protected by firefighters with foam and water.

Why were cordons put in place? 

Cordons were put in place until we knew that the buildings were structurally safe. They were constantly being assessed and reduced when it was safe to do so. Fire Service Business Support Officers were helping local businesses, including Marks & Spencer and Tesco, to open as soon as possible by advising them on how they could open with adequate fire safety arrangements in those conditions.

Did the Service have a plan of the hotel?

The Service has a Site Specific Risk Information plan for the hotel which is accessible electronically on mobile data terminals carried in all fire appliances.

What was the cause of the fire?

Investigations are on-going but investigators have not been able to examine the scene. The severity of the fire has also limited the extent of the investigation but fire officers will continue to work with other agencies, such as the police and the Health & Safety Executive, and assist insurance companies as appropriate.

Can we make a donation to the fire service?

We are very grateful for the support of the public and local businesses during this incident. The Rapid Response Team was on the scene for an extended period of time and local businesses offered food and drinks free of charge. The fire service is publically funded and doesn't accept donations directly. If someone would like to make a donation direct to the fire service, we would like to refer people to The Fire Fighters Charity at An Official Historic Exeter Fire Appeal has been set up to provide support to those suffering financial hardship as a result of the fire:

The Service is extremely grateful for all the support we have had from residents, local businesses, voluntary organisations and local agencies.

Fire service resources used (as at 7 November 2016)

Below are some statistics which show the scale of the resources used by the Service during the incident:


Total pumping appliances used (includes repeat visits by the same appliance)


Total number of firefighters on fire engines


Different fire engines that attended (does not include repeat visits by the same appliance)


Different fire service vehicles that attended


Different aerial ladder platforms that attended


Maximum number of firefighters on scene at the same time


Maximum number of fire engines on scene at the same time


Maximum number of fire service vehicles on scene at the same time


Total firefighter hours at the incident


Including total hours committed by on-call firefighters


Different officers who attended (does not include repeat visits by the same officer)


Officer hours at the incident


Maximum number of officers on scene at the same time





Time elapsed

Time of call



First three appliances mobilised



First attendance (Exeter Danes Castle)



10 fire engines mobilised



15 fire engines mobilised



Fifth fire engine arrives



Tenth fire engine arrives



20 fire engine mobilised



15th fire engine arrives



20th fire engine arrives




An independent report by the Building Research Establishment into the fire at the Royal Clarence can be viewed here.

Page updated 20 December 2019


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