Oxfordshire fires: 85% of council offices damaged by blaze

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

Roughly 85% of council offices targeted in a suspected arson attack have been damaged, with the planning department "completely destroyed".

South Oxfordshire District Council premises near Wallingford were engulfed by flames in the early hours of Thursday morning.

A thatched cottage and a funeral parlour were also set on fire.

Police have been given an extension until Friday evening to question a 47-year-old man on suspicion of arson.

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

Website down

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

A spokesman for Oxfordshire County Council Fire and Rescue Service said the council building was "about 85%" damaged by the fire.

The flames were reignited by strong winds on Thursday night. Firefighters are still at the site in Benson Lane, Crowmarsh Gifford, Wallingford, for "damping down".

Council leader John Cotton said the fire would impact all services, but bin collection, leisure services and council tax collection would continue as normal.

He said: "The planning department is completely destroyed.

"The environmental health department and housing department are also badly affected."

A temporary website has been set up while the South Oxfordshire District Council site is down.

Mr Cotton said staff were working to get the computer system up and running by Monday.

'Staff distressed'

Several office workers returned to the site earlier to see if any files could be salvaged, but were turned away by officials.

John Gordon, who works in the building, said: "I came to see really, but I've been talking to some of the staff and they're very distressed, but they're confident that it'll soon be going again."

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

In the first blaze, Jean Gladstone, 80, escaped unhurt from her thatched cottage on Quakers Corner in Rokemarsh, near Benson.

Neighbour and friend Jean Wantling said: "She's tremendously young at heart and a very capable person, and hopefully she'll be able to take it in her stride.

"I'm sure everybody in the hamlet will rally round and help her."

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

Image caption A thatched cottage on Quakers Corner in Rokemarsh, near Benson, also caught fire

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 at the Roke home of the 47-year-old suspect.

About 400 staff normally work at the council offices. A skeleton staff of 40 people are currently working.

The headquarters also houses about two-thirds of the Vale of the White Horse District Council's staff.

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