HIGHWAYS officials have defended a decision to close one of the region's busiest roads for several hours yesterday after a lorry carrying straw bales caught fire.

Thousands of motorists were stuck in long traffic jams or faced lengthy diversions after the lorry caught fire on the A1(M) in North Yorkshire.

Travellers reported spending several hours queuing on the A1(M) and on diversionary routes through nearby Northallerton and Richmond after the incident between Catterick and Scotch Corner. 

The government agency Highways England said its officers were notified around 7.40am yesterday when the lorry carrying two trailers of straw bales caught fire on the northbound carriageway. 

The scene of the fire on the northbound carriageway of the A1(M) between Catterick and Scotch Corner. Picture: North Yorkshire Police

The intense blaze sent thick smoke billowing across the carriageways and towards homes in Middleton Tyas and Scotch Corner. 

Dramatic pictures showed flames ravaging the truck's cabin, but thankfully no one was injured in the incident. A spokesman for North Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service said they had managed to get on top of the fire before it took hold of all the straw. 

However, concern the fire could flare up again led to the decision to close the carriageway completely. 

A spokeswoman for Highways England said: “The carriageway was closed because the hay was still smouldering and risked reigniting. 
“It was the difficulty putting the fire out in the hay on the back of the HGV causing it to be a longer closure than usual.”

The road was closed off between the A6136 road to Catterick North and the A66 Middleton Tyas Lane at Scotch Corner, prompting major diversions through surrounding towns and villages, on a day when many people were travelling after the Christmas festivities.

The lorry fire on the A1(M) northbound near Catterick. Picture: North Yorkshire Fire & Rescue

Traffic was diverted through Richmond and Catterick to the west of the motorway and to the east along the A167 through Northallerton and Great Smeaton, causing further tailbacks. 

Many people took to social media to voice their frustration at the lengthy delays. 

One person reported on Twitter that they had been struck in traffic for three hours and there were unconfirmed reports that one of the diversions was blocked.

Firefighters at the scene of the blaze on the A1(M). Picture: North Yorkshire Police

Another posted on Facebook that there had been no diversion signs in place when they had reached the area at 8.50am and they had not seen anyone directing traffic off the motorway.

Another posted: “Don’t use Richmond. It’s gridlocked.”
Northallerton also became jammed with re-routed traffic, with one person posting on social media: “Northallerton needs a bypass for when the A1 is shut (which is on a regular basis.)”

By 11.40am one lane of the southbound carriageway was reopened before the carriageway was later fully accessible to traffic. The northbound side of the A1M was reopened by 1.20pm. 

North Yorkshire Police moved the lorry to a safe location to enable the fire crews to deal with remainder of the fire. A spokesman said: “We've moved the lorry to a safe location for (the fire service) to work. Lots of smoke in the area, but it's no cause for concern.”

The lorry fire on the A1(M) northbound near Catterick. Picture: Claire Peach

Crews from North Yorkshire and Darlington worked together at the scene. Engines were called from Richmond, a water bowser came from Boroughbridge and two appliances were sent from Darlington.

Sub-zero temperatures swept across the UK on Thursday morning, with the mercury dipping to freezing levels in areas such as Suffolk, Gloucestershire, Cumbria, Devon and northern Scotland, the Met Office said.

It follows a fatal pile-up on the A40 in treacherous conditions on Wednesday morning, which left one woman dead and many injured.

The Met Office issued a "yellow" fog warning for much of England, which said visibility could drop below 100 metres in some areas.

It said: "Combined with temperatures below freezing, there is also the risk of ice forming on some untreated surfaces particularly later in the night and early on Thursday morning.

"The fog patches are expected to slowly thin during Thursday, although some patches may persist throughout the day - most likely in a zone from the West Country to Eastern England."

A spokesman said on Thursday morning that fog had been recorded across England and was particularly thick in areas such as Lincolnshire.

The AA urged "extreme caution" for those heading out on the roads, adding that extra time should be allowed, tyres properly inflated and screens adequately de-iced.

Spokesman Ian Crowder said: "We have got the worst possible conditions really, of fog and icy roads, and that can be lethal.

"I think the message is extreme caution and to prepare for the worst and make sure all windows are clear."

He added that failure to do so could "lead to disaster".