Landlords are being warned to tighten up on security at their empty shops and warehouses – or risk becoming the next target for arsonists.
The call came after 90 people had to be moved to safety as an inferno ripped through the former Barnes Furniture warehouse in Accrington town centre.
Forty firefighters fought the blaze, some hosing it from an elevated crane, after it broke out at around 7pm on Friday, October 7. Police say the fire was started deliberately and are now hunting the culprits.
Following the blaze, councillor Tony Dobson is concerned more disused buildings could be targeted by arsonists if landlords don’t make them secure and presentable.
He said that the higher number of empty property caused by the recession had left many buildings vulnerable to fire bugs.
He said: "Landlords need to make their premises look presentable, safe and secure.
"If they don’t do this, these buildings can be identified as play things for people with fire and crime on their mind. We have got a number of buildings in Accrington and in Hyndburn that are not in use and this kind of attack could happen to them."
About 90 people, most of who were children and young people with learning disabilities, were moved as town centre premises were evacuated.
More than 65 people were told to leave the adjoining New Era Complex and a dance class containing 20 children had to be moved from Hyndburn Voluntary and Community Resource Centre.
Barnes Furniture used the three-storey building as a warehouse for 30 years until closing in 2005.
Before that it had been home to the Ritz cinema.
In August 2006 the property was taken off the market after no one offered to meet its £700,000 asking price.
The shop, on the junction of Cannon Street and Church Street, has been empty ever since and is also adjoined to a domestic house.
Police closed the Canon Street between the Church Street junction and the Eagle Street junction while fire crews battled the flames. Liz Pilkington, manager of New Era Complex on Paradise Street, said: "There are always young people around in our building but luckily it wasn’t a windy night and it didn’t spread.
"The firefighters poured gallons and gallons of water onto the fire from above thankfully other people involved did a great job."
John Taylor of Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service said officers used an aerial ladder cherry picker to get above the fire and put it out.
DS Alan Davies of Accrington CID said: "We are definitely treating it as a deliberate fire. Every other source of how the fire could have started has been eliminated after the fire report came to us. We are at quite an early stage of our investigation and haven’t brought anyone in yet for questioning. We are looking for witnesses to come forward. This is integral to us. Someone must have seen someone enter the building between approximately 5pm and 7pm."
Ian Fletcher, director of policy at the British Property Federation, said: "Responsible landlords will want to ensure their property is safe, secure and presentable. That is in their best interest and that of the local community."