Oxfordshire Council offices fire reignited by winds

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Media captionDuncan Kennedy reports on a "highly unusual triple fire incident"

Gale force winds helped reignite a fire at council offices hit by a suspected arson attack.

A huge fire engulfed South Oxfordshire District Council's premises in one of three suspected arson attacks involving gas canisters early on Thursday.

A 47-year-old man remains in custody on suspicion of arson. A funeral parlour and thatched cottage were also damaged.

Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service said firefighters had to tackle the reignited blaze in part of the roof.

At its peak 27 crews were tackling the fires which started within 10 minutes of each other shortly after 03:00 GMT on Thursday.

In the first blaze, a woman in her 80s escaped unhurt from a thatched cottage on Quakers Corner in Rokemarsh, near Benson, when she was alerted by a smoke alarm. Neighbours were evacuated from their homes.

Minutes later a second fire was reported at a funeral parlour in the village of Crowmarsh Gifford, Wallingford. The third blaze was at the nearby council offices on Benson Lane.

Eyewitnesses reported hearing a bang and later seeing 60ft flames, with high winds fanning the flames.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption About 400 staff normally work at the council offices

The burnt-out wreckage of a car which ploughed in to the council building moments before it became engulfed in flames remains in the foyer.

Gas canisters were found at all three fire sites as well as the home of the 47-year-old suspect in Roke.

Firefighters were assisted by bomb disposal experts in making the scenes safe.

Thames Valley Police said the investigation was focusing on all three fires being linked and suspicious.

'Tough day'

About 400 staff from departments including housing, planning, building control and leisure work at the council building.

South Oxfordshire District Council has set up an emergency phone line for people who have urgent inquiries.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Bomb disposal experts were brought in to help make the scenes safe

Council leader John Cotton said the fire would impact all council services, with the planning department particularly badly hit.

He said he was confident "a fairly full raft of services" could be available again by the end of next week.

"We have contingency plans for a fire but we would never have anticipated the kind of circumstances that happened here in the early hours. It's been a tough day for everyone.

"Thanks to the work of the fire brigade, a substantial part of the building should be back in use in the not too distant future," he said.

Vale of White Horse District Council leader, Matthew Barbour, whose authority shares office space in the building, said the fire would have a "huge effect" on how services are delivered.

Other councils have offered assistance to the two authorities affected by the fire. Oxfordshire County Council, Oxford City Council and Henley Town Council have all offered office space to staff.

Image caption The fire service was called to a fire at a thatched cottage on Quakers Corner in Rokemarsh, near Benson
Image caption The funeral parlour near the council offices was cordoned off by police

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