RESIDENTS were evacuated from a Basingstoke block of flats after one of the homes was targeted in a suspected arson attack.
Seventeen firefighters in three engines were involved in tackling the blaze at an unoccupied ground floor flat in Howard Road, Cranbourne.
Residents say the block of nine flats have been plagued by problems for some time - and last week it was the scene of an armed police drama.
Margaret Smith, who lives above the Sovereign Housing Association-owned property which was set alight, woke to hear her smoke detector going off shortly before midnight on Tuesday, April 23.
The 78-year-old said: “I went to bed at 10pm and then all of a sudden there was all this noise with bells ringing and I thought 'goodness me'.”
Mrs Smith went to her neighbour's flat before they were all evacuated by the fire brigade. She added: “I was outside in my nightdress and dressing gown. There weren't flames, just lots of smoke. We were all coughing.”
The residents spent an hour outside while firefighters used four breathing apparatus, two hose reels and a main jet to extinguish the fire.
Watch manager Keith Jones said they were called to the scene at just after midnight.
He added: “There was considerable damage to the flat involved but no damage to the rest of the building. We left at around 1.30am.”
Mrs Smith's living room was left with ash on the floor, and she said: “I had a lot of sooty stuff on the carpet but I have swept that away.”
The pensioner, who has lived in her flat for 50 years, said residents have experienced various problems in recent years, with the police being called on numerous occasions. She said the flat where the fire started has been left empty for months.
Another resident, who did not want to be named, described the flats as a “hell hole”. She added: “It's notorious and there's rarely a day goes by when we don't have police surrounding the building.”
She claimed that in recent years there had been problems with prostitutes, drug addicts and thieves, adding: “Last week, for instance, we had seven police cars, all with armed police and riot shields, and a policewoman with a dog here, and they surrounded the whole block.
“We asked what was going on and they said 'go in and close the door and don't come out.' What the incident was, we don't know.”
Another resident added: “We are just about sick of it. We used to have such a quiet life - we never had any problems.”
Yesterday morning, an arson investigation team was at the flats, part of which had been cordoned off with police tape.
The police have confirmed that the fire is suspicious and is being treated as arson. They also confirmed that a man had been charged following the incident on April 18. Allan Jason Pyne, 36, of Howard Road, was arrested at the scene and charged with possession of a firearm with intent to case unlawful violence.
Debbie Down, external communications advisor for Sovereign, said: “We will be helping the police with their inquiries, and supporting our residents with any concerns throughout this period.”