HOUSEHOLDERS had to be evacuated when 50 firefighters fought a blaze at a disused factory in Darwen last night.

Flames roared 20ft high above the roof of the boarded-up property in Equity Street following a suspected arson attack at around midnight.

Eight fire engines were called to the former pneumatics factory.

Residents, including a 23-year-old mother and her four-year-old daughter living next door to the property, were evacuated in case the fire spread to their homes.

The incident is the latest in a summer of arson attacks by youths, dubbed 'maniacs' by fire chiefs.

A Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service spokesman said: “The fire started on the ground floor.

"It spread through to the first floor and broke through the roof and basically destroyed it.

"At that point the flames were probably 20ft above roof level.

“We are treating it as suspicious. It looks as if it's been ignited deliberately and investigations are ongoing.”

Barry and Patricia Ward watched the fire from the back window of their home on Rydal Avenue.

Mr Ward said: “It burst through the roof. You could feel the heat from here.”

Mrs Ward added: “People keep breaking into it. The door has been open since Friday, at least.”

Tony and Linda Walsh, of Rydal Avenue, said they launched a 186-signature petition 13 years ago to have the building converted or knocked down.

But councillors told them the owner had moved abroad and nothing could be done, despite the building lying empty for more than two decades.

Mr Walsh said: “It just got worse and worse. It's an eyesore. Kids were always breaking into it.

“There was a cannabis farm in there at one point and the police raided it.

“We're not surprised this has happened at all.”

Brian Charnock, 47, lives next to the young mum, Lauren McKay, and her daughter, Lexi, whose house in Stansfield Street abuts the factory.

He said: “I heard a bloke shouting 'get out, get out' and then a bang on my door. We were all evacuated.

“We were afraid it could get in the roof space. I was very concerned for her and her daughter.”

Joanna Irvine, 31, of Equity Street, said: “It's disgusting that it has to get to this for something to be done. How many complaints have they received?”

Incident Command Officer Steve Green said: “The building will have to come down now because it is unsafe.”