ARSONISTS are thought to be responsible for a fire which ripped through a former social housing complex in Shiplake
ARSONISTS are thought to be responsible for a fire which ripped through a former social housing complex in Shiplake.
An eyewitness reported seeing a group of youths running away from Sidney Harrison House, off Mill Road, shortly before the alarm was raised.
Five fire crews tackled the blaze, which destroyed part of the two-storey building belonging to South Oxfordshire Housing Association. It had been boarded up as it was unoccupied and due to be redeveloped.
The emergency services were called at 3.30pm on Tuesday after flames were seen coming from the building and a large pall of dark grey smoke appeared overhead.
A wing of the building was on fire and the roof had collapsed but firefighters managed to stop the blaze spreading to the main building as others wearing breathing apparatus went inside to check no one was trapped.
A 20m cordon was set up as the crews tackled the flames with water from hose reels.
James Hall, 31, who lives in Mill Road, said: “I went round to the shop and saw about seven to 10 13-year-olds running away and thought nothing of it.
“When I came out of the shop I saw smoke coming out of the roof and, when I had a closer look, coming out the boarded-up windows as well. I thought they could have been vandalising it like kids do but I didn't expect them to torch it.”
Freddie Atkinson, 17, whose family was moving into a house in Lowes Close, said: “At first we thought it was a bonfire but it got bigger and one of the removals men came in and told us to call the fire brigade.
“We went to have a look and the fire was massive. We could see smoke and flames and soon afterwards the roof collapsed.”
His father Simon said: “There was billowing smoke in our garden so we ran round and saw the flames. The fire spread very quickly until the roof collapsed.” Mark Blanchard said he and his children rushed to the scene after seeing smoke from their home in Badgers Walk.
Mr Blanchard, 43, a furniture designer, said: “The kids ran in and said there were billows of black smoke so we jumped in the car and drove down.
“There were already quite a few people and the building was pretty wrecked, although it hadn’t spread to the other buildings.
“It looked really bad. You don’t get things like this in Shiplake, it’s usually something like a flowerpot blowing over in the wind but this was pretty big. The black smoke in the sky was absolutely horrendous. You could see it from a long way away.”
A total of 30 firefighters from Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire attended the fire.
Incident commander Graham Turner said: “The guys turned up to find a well-established fire in one of the wings of the building.
“We quickly assessed the fire and battled it for some time. We managed to stop it spreading to the main building. There was no one inside. We also checked the main building thoroughly.
“We don’t know how the fire started but there’s an investigation under way and the fire investigation officer is liaising with police.” Police at the scene said the cause of the fire was being treated as arson.
Soha is to apply for planning permission to redevelop Sidney Harrison House, where there were 18 tenants in 14 flats and four bungalows.
It proposes to build a three-storey block of 12 “affordable” flats on half the land and develop the other half privately. The flats would be for the over-55s and five of them would have one bedroom and the other seven would have two.
A Soha spokeswoman said: “We are working with police and the fire service to determine how the fire started.
“Sidney Harrison House has been empty for some months and all utilities had been decommissioned.
“The property was secured again after the emergency services gave the all clear and Soha has communicated to the parish council that we will enhance security further.”
Councillor Tudor Taylor, chairman of Shiplake Parish Council, said: “We are obviously disappointed that something like this has happened and it looks as though the fire was started deliberately.
“We have spoken to Soha who say they have tightened security at the building.”
A spokesman for Oxfordshire Fire and Resecue Service said: “The cause of the fire is under investigation and our fire investigation team is working with Thames Valley Police.”
Anyone with information is asked to call Thames Valley Police on 101.