A FORMER bar in Darwen town centre has been gutted by fire – which police believe was started deliberately.

Dozens of firefighters spent more than two hours battling the fierce blaze which left the Church Street building a shell.

At its height the flames leapt through the roof of the former Franky’s bar and club and they could be seen for several miles.

Yesterday the road was closed as the building, which has been empty since it was put on the market in April, was examined by a council expert to ensure it was structurally sound.

Firefighters also spent the whole day damping down the site to ensure the blaze did not reignite.

A police officer was also posted at the scene while the cause of the fire was investigated.

Stephen Milligan, who owns Holker House Business Centre in Railway Road, directly opposite Franky’s, said youths often hund around the area.

He said: “I have been complaining for four or five years about youths gathering around there and up near the church.

“I have reported a few times to the police about kids climbing on the roofs as well.

“In fact it would appear someone has been on my roof in the past 24 hours.

“There just isn’t enough police supervision in the town centre at night time because they haven’t got the staff to cover it these days.

“It was certainly a surprise to see the destruction when I arrived at work.

“I am relieved there was no damage to my building.”

Resident Tony Vick, 66, of Victoria Street, which is adjacent to Church Street, said: “My dog woke me up barking at 1.30am.

“We get a lot of trouble around here from youngsters, idiots and drunks knocking bins over and things.

“I didn’t think too much of it until I saw blue flashing lights and then I went outside and saw massive flames coming out of the top of the building.”

Councillor Dave Smith, of Sunnyhurst ward, said he was aware of problems in the area.

He said last week he found the property’s door kicked in and it was subsequently fixed by the council.

Coun Smith said: “Obviously kids, or somebody, has got in there and done this. It is just outrageous.

“It is such a shame the contents of the building have been destroyed, because even if it isn’t the most attractive building, it is a heritage site.

“There is a war memorial in the snooker room and the old cinema was in there too. It is sad to see all that history lost.”

Adam Hulme, manager of The Bridgewater pub in Railway Road, said: “We are aware of children messing about in this part of town, in the centre and in the alleyway at the side of our pub.

“We did have our bin set fire earlier this year which could have been much worse, but luckily that was put out by our neighbours at The Millstone pub.”

Six fire engines with 35 firefighters attended the incident. An ariel ladder was used to jet water down onto the fire from the top of the two-storey building.

It was severely damaged by fire, but the surrounding area was left untouched.

A fire service spokesman said: “We got a 999 call at 1.37am. Six fire engines and an Aerial Ladder Platform (ALP) and crews were mobilised.

“They steadily had an impact in extinguishing the fire and at around 4am it was effectively out, with residual pockets of fire to extinguish, known as 'damping down'.

“We believe the fire was started deliberately and a fire and police investigation is in progress.”

A council spokeswoman said: “Structurally the building is sound, but a lot of damage has been caused to the roof.”

The building was first on sale for £225,000 before being dropped to £150,000.