DOZENS of schoolchildren had to be sent home after a huge plume of smoke towered over Billericay when a fire broke out in a barn.

Seven fire crews from Basildon, Billericay, Brentwood, Wickford and Chelmsford were called to Outward Common Road in Billericay at around 1.50pm today following reports a 20 by 20metre barn containing 100 tonnes of bailed straw was alight.

It is thought the hay could have spontaneously combusted.

A JCB and a lorry were also on fire on the site near Balmoral Close.

Smoke could be seen for miles around as firefighters worked to try and extinguish the blaze.

Staff at the nearby Ramsden Hall School were forced to send around 60 pupils home early as a safety precaution following the fire.

The East of England Ambulance Service’s hazardous response team was also called after asbestos was discovered in the roof of the barn which could have posed a danger to residents.

Police were also advising residents to shut their windows and doors as a precaution as the smoke continued to spread throughout the afternoon.

Essex Police's helicopter was also seen circling the scene. 

The incident commander from the fire service reported at 4pm that they were making “steady progress” tackling the fire with six jets, but that they expected it to be a “protracted incident”.

Three fire engines were on standby to take over at the scene from 6pm.

Echo: Fire in Billericay - picture courtesy of Echo reader Rachel Harper

Watch a video of the fire here: