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Hunt for arsonist after 'Great Fire of Uckfield'
Police are hunting a suspected arsonist after a high street was set ablaze.
Four buildings were gutted in the inferno in Uckfield which officers believe was started deliberately.
Firefighters were called to a bin fire in Olives Yard at around 11pm on Sunday night but they arrived too late to stop the flames spreading to shops and businesses.
Residents woke and watched in horror as flames shot up into the night sky and a thick column of acrid smoke drifted over the town.
People had to be evacuated from nearby flats and were taken to an emergency centre to spend the night.
As fire crews battled to bring the blaze under control, traders were phoned and told their businesses were burning to the ground.
Many rushed to the scene in the middle of the night and watched in horror as their livelihoods were destroyed.
Businesses including two charity shops, a firm of accountants and a marketing company were left in smoky ruins.
At its height, 40 firefighters from Uckfield, Crowborough, Barcombe, Lewes and Heathfield tackled the blaze, dubbed by residents the Great Fire of Uckfield.
Crews fought to contain the fire as it ripped through the roof voids and threatened to spread to other nearby shops.
One of the most badly damaged buildings, believed to be about five hundred years old, will now have to be knocked down by a council demolition team.
Mandy Hutton, 50, manager of the Sense and British Heart Foundation charity shops, was woken by a call at around midnight to tell her both stores were ablaze.
She said: “I was just in a state of shock. I rushed down there and I couldn’t believe it. The worst thing was that every time we thought the flames had gone they came back.
“It was a beautiful historic building and it’s now all gone, along with our jobs. I just hope that whoever started it is happy with the devastation and pain they have caused.”
As dawn broke yesterday, Uckfield residents came out to see the devastation. Smoke still rose from the blackened building as firefighters dampened down hotspots.
Soon building crews moved in and began to peel blackened tiles away from the gutted shops, sending them crashing down to the road below.
Neil Edwards, managing director at marketing company The Marketing Eye, said his office had been wrecked by the blaze.
He said: “I’ve had better Mondays. I was supposed to be going to London for an appointment when I got a call saying there had been a fire in the office.
“I thought it would be a small kitchen fire but it has been totally destroyed. It will take at least 12 months to get back on track but we are insured so there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
Peter Gale, managing partner of Swindells Accounting, said his office had been destroyed but that his business was still up and running.
He said: “It was a hell of a shock but luckily no one got hurt. I’ve managed to retrieve a few files but we’ve lost pretty much everything.”
As the fire spread, 25 people were initially evacuated from the surrounding flats and were taken to the Bell Walk Social Club as a temporary measure.
Wealden District Council set up an emergency rest centre at Uckfield Civic Centre where 12 residents spent the night.
Paul Sparks , East Sussex county councillor for Uckfield, said the main thing was that everyone got out safely.
He said: “The first thing was to make sure no one was injured. Now we want to get residents back into properties and we need to get the High Street back open again.
“These have been tough times for traders in Uckfield and this is just another blow.”
Wealden Borough fire commander Mark Matthews said: “Local crews from Uckfield were faced with a rapidly developing fire which had already taken hold and was affecting a number of shops and flats. The crews worked extremely hard to contain the fire to one block, which after some decisive action by crews was achieved.
“It is already clear that this fire will have a dramatic effect on the owners and employees of the businesses that have been destroyed, a consequence that is so easily overlooked by those not affected.”
As The Argus went to press last night the High Street was still closed and fire crews at the scene.
Detective Sergeant Lee Floyd of East Sussex CID said: "We believe that this fire was started deliberately and would appeal for anyone with information about who may have started it to contact police.”
Anyone with information is asked to contact Sussex Police on 101 quoting Operation Fullstop or the independent charity Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.