Christmas shoppers at Stockland Wallsend were evacuated on Thursday night after a nearby abandoned building went up in flames.
A fire started in the former Wallsend Squash and Swim Centre on Council Street some time between 8pm and 9pm. Smoke from the blaze was heavy and emergency services decided to evacuate nearby buildings including the shopping centre and Art Mania Studio.
The fire caused extensive damage to the building, which was also formerly home to Zone Empire laser tag, and due to the structure’s instability fire crews could not enter the premises. Five crews were still on scene on Friday morning to deal with a small re-ignition in the old complex, but the blaze is under control.
“Tonight was quite frightening for us,” Art Mania Studio’s Fee Madigan wrote in a statement on Facebook.
“Our building, Art Mania Studio and the said building walls would be lucky if they were [one metre] apart. Flames bellowing from the roof and the gaps in the guttering lapping outside like claws of flame clutching the side of the buildings.
“Part of the [squash centre] building roof has caved in. About 9pm this evening we had to stop classes and evacuate everyone.”
Ms Madigan said the abandoned building is regularly used by groups of youths and has become a target for vandalism and anti-social behaviour.
Firies and police are investigating the blaze.
State Member for Wallsend Sonia Hornery has called for better police resources for Wallsend following the fire.
She said the site had been a hot spot for crime and a number of attempts had been made in the past few weeks to set the place on fire.
“This is yet another example of an overworked, overstretched Police force unable to put enough resources into the Wallsend CBD to prevent issues like this fire,” she said.
“Local businesses have provided CCTV footage and photos of people who have been lurking around this building for the past few weeks, but due to limited resources, police have not been able to prevent this fire.
“Our emergency services are amazing. Last night crews worked for more than five hours to contain the fire and prevent damage to the surrounding buildings, including my office which is directly opposite.
“I hope that the CCTV footage leads to these perpetrators being arrested and dealt with and nothing further happens in the Wallsend electorate over the Christmas break.”
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