A VICTORIAN mill was gutted in an arson inferno after 40-foot high flames tore through the building yesterday.

Police think youths started the fire at Rhyddings Mill, Oswaldtwistle, and urged parents to check their children’s clothes for the smell of smoke.

The blaze caused hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of damage after wrecking the mill in Rhyddings Street which housed two businesses.

At its peak, 60 firefighters fought the blaze at the Grade II-listed building.

They said 40ft flames shot through the roof of the building and reported a number of explosions.

Families from 40 homes in the surrounding area were evacuated over fears the mill's 100ft high chimney might collapse.

Many residents spent the night at nearby Oswaldtwistle Civic Theatre where the ambulance service, Samaritans, Victim Support and other organisations were on hand, as well as refreshments.

The fire broke out at around 2am. It took four hours to bring under control and was still smouldering in the afternoon.

The devastated owner of Dave’s Auto Fix, a car body repair centre, was on site yesterday to assess the damage to his business premises.

The first floor contained a furniture warehouse.

Residents said they had complained to police of regular anti-social behaviour in the area during the evenings and nights.

And the blaze is the latest arson to take place during the summer holidays.

Last week it was revealed there had been more than 170 suspicious fires in the first five weeks of the school break.

Detective Sergeant Paul Langley, from Accrington CID, said: “It is reckless act that has endangered the lives of residents and fire officers.

“It has caused extensive damage to the building and the businesses of two people.

"We are working with fire investigators to establish the cause of the fire and attempt to identify the persons responsible.

“We are appealing for witnesses and are urging any parents who are aware of their children coming home smelling of smoke to contact us.”

Police said fires had been started in the yard and the first floor.

The road was closed and the area around the building cordoned off as fire officers feared the retaining walls would collapse.

Building regulation staff made a gable end wall safe.

Around 12-metres of the chimey were also removed.

Incident Commander David Russel from Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service said: “The firefighters did an excellent job and, at times, the conditions they faced were dangerous.

"They had to use their skill and bravery to stop the fire from spreading.

“We will be remaining at the scene for the most of the day to ensure that all pockets of fire have been extinguished and that the building remains safe."

He said investigations could be delayed by the condition of the building.

Council leader and ward representative Peter Britcliffe praised the efforts of the emergency services.

He said: "It must have been very, very dramatic. We have an emergency planning in case something out of the ordinary happens and we put it into action.

"We don’t have to use it much but when we used it and people were evacuated it worked well.”

The former cotton mill, which was built in 1856 and ceased production in 1957, is in a conservation area and was on Hyndburn Council’s building 'at risk' register.

Anyone with information is asked to contact police on 0845 1 25 35 45 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.