Hundreds of firefighters have been tackling three major blazes in South Oxfordshire, as police arrested a man on suspicion of arson.
The 47-year-old is being held in connection with the fires, including one that has devastated the South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse District Council offices.
Twenty-seven fire crews were sent to separate infernos at a thatched home in Rokemarsh and a funeral parlour and the council offices in nearby village Crowmarsh Gifford – all reported within less than 10 minutes of each other, just after 3am.
A witness described seeing a burnt-out car in the foyer of the council headquarters, while aerial images show a collapsed section of roof on the charred remains of the building.
An army bomb disposal team is on the scene amid fears over unexploded gas canisters at the site
Howard Chadwick Funeral Service and the council offices are next to each other in Benson Lane and the funeral director suggested the blazes had been started deliberately.
Neil Cox, 73, told the Oxford Mail: “I live right next to the funeral home and at about 3.15am I heard a noise so I came out and saw a car drive away quickly, down into the council building.
“The offices of the funeral home were on fire, so I phoned the owner, Howard, called the fire service and we tried putting it out with fire extinguishers.
“My understanding is they broke the window in the front door, popped the cap off a gas canister and threw a match in there.”
Mr Cox’s son and co-owner of the funeral home, Alistair Cox, said: “I think it’s a case of mistaken identity, they probably thought the home was a gatehouse to the council. I’ve got no idea why they set fire to the council building.”
Another co-owner, Sandra Chadwick, told the Oxford Mail “no funerals have been cancelled and no bodies of the deceased have been damaged” as a result of the fires.
Thames Valley Police that it was “believed that a vehicle collided with” the council offices before the fire started there.
“At this stage the police investigation is focusing on all three fires being linked and are believed to be suspicious,” the force said.
“This is being investigated as a criminal act and is not thought linked to any terrorist activity. There are cordons in place at all three scenes and residents and motorists are asked to avoid the area.
“Nobody is reported injured as a result of these fires, however following the fires the structures of the buildings are being examined.
“A 47-year-old local man has been arrested on suspicion of arson and is currently in custody.”
Karl Mitchell-Shead, who filmed footage of the council office fire, earlier told Sky News: “The roof has collapsed in places and the other half is well and truly alight.
“I got there pretty early in the operation. Police weren’t really there. You can’t get anywhere near it now.
“The funeral parlour is the last house to the main entrance to the council site. The thatched house is about a mile away.”
Journalist Marcus Chippendale told Sky News: “There are still some flames coming from the building.
“There are going to be a lot of people this morning with concerns about how the council is going to deal with the issues they have. There are still quite a large number of fire service vehicles here.