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Winds fan flames at 'arson' site

Gale force winds have helped to reignite a fire in a building that was hit by a suspected arson attack on three buildings.

High winds have turned over loose material in the building that had previously been on fire meaning that "a section of the roof is on fire" and Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service is "now engaged in active firefighting," a spokesman said.

He could not say which of the buildings - a thatched house in Rokemarsh, a funeral parlour or a South Oxfordshire District Council office block - which had been hit by the original blaze was now alight.

The spokesman said: "The winds have caused the fire to reignite and now we have a slightly higher presence there than we had planned to have throughout the night.

"We have a had presence there because of the scale of the incident. In order to be able to respond. We are now engaged in active firefighting. The first indication we had of this was at 6.49pm."

David Etheridge, Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service's chief fire officer, said that technically the fire service had not declared the fire out and that strong winds fanning the embers is a normal hazard in these types of building fires.

Firefighters had led a massive operation to bring all three blazes under control and at its peak 27 crews were tackling the fires which started within 10 minutes of each other shortly after 3am. At present there are six fire engines at the scene and only two were expected to be needed overnight.

The burnt-out wreckage of a car which crashed in to the South Oxfordshire District Council building moments before it became engulfed in flames is still resting in the foyer.

The first blaze was at a thatched house in Rokemarsh, followed minutes later by a second at Chadwick Howard Funeral Service and a third at the council offices, both in Benson Lane in the village of Crowmarsh Gifford and both reported in the same minute.

Thames Valley Police said a 47-year-old local man has been arrested on suspicion of arson and is currently in custody.

At a press conference this afternoon, Superintendent Andy Boyd, of Thames Valley Police, said: "Gas canisters have been found at the location of all three of the fires.

"There were gas canisters in the vicinity of the car."

He added that an 80-year-old woman managed to escape the blaze at the thatched house and is helping officers with their investigation.

Mr Boyd added that gas canisters were found at the home of the 47-year-old suspect as well as at a second address in Roke during police searches.

Eyewitness Ian Negus told the Oxford Mail: "It looks to me as if it (the car) has been driven in. No-one seems to know yet who the driver is.

"But security on the site who arrived after the fire started said it was arson and that it involved a car."

Adam Beasley told Sky News: "My mother said it was like a bomb, then very quickly the police were on the scene, and fire engines followed soon after.

"In photos you can see a car which was parked up in the foyer. It's plainly an attack involving gas canisters, which would be like a bomb going off when it exploded."

Thames Valley Police (TVP) said in a statement: "At this stage the police investigation is focusing on all three fires being linked and they are believed to be suspicious.

"It is believed that a vehicle collided with the South Oxfordshire District Council building prior to the fire.

"There are cordons in place at all three locations and residents and motorists are asked to avoid these areas.

"Nobody has been reported injured at this time as a result of these fires; however, following these fires the structures of the buildings affected are being examined for safety."

Images of the thatched house show a large part of the property destroyed by flames, while footage of the blaze at the council office show widespread damage and part of the building gutted by fire.

Co-owner of the funeral home Alistair Cox said he believed the business was targeted as a case of "mistaken identity".

"They probably thought the home was a gatehouse to the council. I've got no idea why they set fire to the council building," he told the Oxford Mail.

His father, funeral director Neil Cox, 73, who lives next-door to the building, said he heard a noise at about 3.15am and went out to see a car driving away at speed.

The funeral home confirmed the business was unaffected by the blaze, which damaged only its offices.

Sandra Chadwick, a partner at the funeral home, said: "It looks as if all of our office premises are totally smoke- damaged and all the furniture in our arranging room has gone.

"We have got bodies in the premises but they are all safe.

"They are all contained in the rear of the premises which has been untouched by the fire.

"We would like to reassure our families that their loved ones are safe.

"Thank goodness no-one was hurt. I'm devastated, but I'm so relieved that it wasn't any worse. We will carry on."

South Oxfordshire District Council, which shares its office and operations with Vale of White Horse District Council, described the damage as "extensive" adding that most of its services, including housing and planning, have been affected. Attempts are being made to re-house its 400 staff.

A council spokesman said: "We are putting our business continuity plan into place to make sure the effect on the most important services is kept to a minimum."

Mr Etheridge said: "At this stage, I am unable to state what the causes of the fires were - this matter is currently in the hands of Thames Valley Police, with whom we are working in conjunction."

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