A suspected arson attack has wiped out more than 60 hectares of Sussex countryside after a raging fire swept through woodland.

Firefighters from 23 fire stations spanning East Sussex, West Sussex and Kent came together to fight a giant fire at Ashdown Forest on Wednesday afternoon.

The first of several 999 calls to the service was received at 1.57pm to deal with the blaze and fire crew at one stage battled to divert the fire away from houses in Chelwood Gate.

Paul Sundaram-Hardwicke, station manager at Eastbourne Fire Station HQ, said: “We believe this fire was started deliberately by a human act.

“From research and numer- ous previous cases, it seems highly unlikely that this was caused accidentally by some- body flicking a cigarette into an open field, for example.

“It seems likely it was started on purpose, but without eyewit- nesses to prove it, it’s going to be very difficult to prove.”

At the height of the incident, lead by incident commander Gary Farrand, a total of 16 fire engines were in attendance, but when the first of the fire- fighters arrived they were faced with a seemingly manageable 40m by 40m fire.

Due to gusting winds, within a matter of minutes, the fire raged out of control to an area of 80m by 600m and back-up was called to battle the blaze.

Mr Sundaram-Hardwicke added: “Runs are in place in the area that are meant to isolate the fires to small areas, but when wind gets in behind a fire, there’s nothing you can do about it.

“At one stage there was an immediate danger to some properties in the area, including a number of houses, so we had to make a decision to divert the fire away from the area.

“In doing so, we had to allow the fire to spread quickly else- where, but it was something we had to deal.”

There was no damage to any property and there have been no reported injuries.