POLICE investigating a spate of suspected arson attacks say gas canisters were found at the scene of the three fires, including a blaze which gutted a council headquarters.
Thames Valley Police yesterday arrested a 47-year-old man after the fires at a thatched house, a funeral parlour and the offices of South Oxfordshire District Council.
The burnt-out wreckage of a car which crashed into the council building moments before it became engulfed in flames was still resting in the foyer last night.
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Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service led a massive operation to bring all three blazes under control and at its peak 27 crews were tackling the fires which started within ten minutes of each other in the heart of “Inspector Morse country”.
The first blaze was at a house in Rokemarsh, around 12 miles south-east of Oxford, followed minutes later by a second at Chadwick Howard Funeral Services and a third at the council offices, both in the village of Crowmarsh Gifford and both reported in the same minute.
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 said that gas canisters were also found at the home of the 47-year-old suspect as well as at a second address during police searches.
Police said no one had been injured in the fires, which are being treated as a “criminal act”. Gas canisters were also in the vehicle used by terrorists to ram Glasgow Airport in 2007, but police said the Oxfordshire fires are not thought to be linked to terrorism.
Local man Adam Beasley said there had been a sound like an explosion when the fire at the council offices began.
He said: “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.”
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.”
South Oxfordshire District Council, which shares its office and operations with Vale of White Horse District Council, said most of its services, including housing and planning, have been affected and attempts are being made to rehouse 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.”
David Etheridge, chief fire officer for Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service, 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.”
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