THE devastated owners of a business have vowed it will bounce back after a fire caused thousands of pounds worth of damage and the death of thousands of fish and other animals.

Thousands of tropical fish, and more than 150 snakes and lizards, worth more than £20,000, perished as flames swept through the Prestige Aquatics centre at Cottismore Garden Centre, off the A339 Newbury Road north of Kingsclere.

Garden centre owner Richard Haines, 32, from Kempshott, Basingstoke, and Prestige Aquatics owner Bob Palmer, 23, from Eastrop, Basingstoke, said they were shocked by the devastation wreaked by the blaze, which broke out shortly after 3pm on December 19.

“It was a normal day – we did the same things as normal in the morning, then out of nowhere, the day changed completely,” said Richard.

As the blaze, which is believed to have been caused by an electrical fault, took hold inside the aquatic centre, Richard and Bob, as well as staff from charity The Growing Together Project next door, attempted to save the animals.

One tortoise, and two spiny-tailed Uromastyx lizards were rescued when Richard smashed into their tanks with a pick axe.

He said. “We do really care about our animals so it was important for us to get as many to safety as we could without endangering ourselves. We are in the process now of working out the full impact of the incident.”

Thirty-five firefighters on five engines from Basingstoke, Tadley, Overton, Winchester, and Rushmoor were dispatched to the garden centre.

Eight firefighters in breathing apparatus, and colleagues using three water jets and a specialist aerial ladder, were deployed to douse the flames. The garden centre, which had no customers on site at the time of the fire, had been evacuated by the time the crews arrived at the scene.

Incident commander Dave Graham said: “It was very challenging for our crews to tackle the fire and they did a great job in containing the flames. The owners also acted very quickly in moving gas cylinders away from the fire.”

Despite the devastation, which will take months to repair, the garden centre was open for business the next day, and the aquatic centre was still running its specialist delivery service.

Richard said staff have been buoyed by messages of support from customers. “We have been overwhelmed by offers of support from the community.

“People from Kingsclere, Tadley, Basingstoke – they have all called or come to see if they can help us. We really do value our relationships with local people, and in times like these it comes back to help.”