THE blaze that ripped through the Co-op store in Hamworthy is now being treated as arson, Dorset Fire and Rescue has confirmed.

Flames swept through the Blandford Road site in the early hours of Saturday, completely gutting the premises and depriving Hamworthy of a vital community facility.

Co-op say the cost of rebuilding the store is likely to reach £4.5m and 49 staff have had to be temporarily relocated.

Roy Pinder, fire investigation officer for the incident, said: "We have confirmed that Saturday's fire, which has destroyed a central part of the community, was started deliberately.

"The fire was started at the rear of the building in the large cages used to store paper and cardboard ready for recycling.

"It very quickly spread to the roof void and subsequently throughout the whole building."

Gary Metcalfe, regional manager for the Co-op, said the incident had been "devastating" for everyone concerned.

He said: "Fortunately, we have managed to relocate our 49 staff but we are looking at a rebuild cost of approximately £4.5m.

"People who carry out such mindless acts have no idea of the consequences of their actions.

"Thankfully no-one was hurt in this instance but I hope that whoever is responsible is very ashamed."

Dorset Fire and Rescue has also issued advice to other retailers and commercial premises in the wake of the blaze.

They are advising waste bins be kept behind locked gates or bought inside overnight to avoid them becoming targets for potential arsonists.

Mr Pinder said: "The message to other stores and commercial premises is quite simple: prevention is always better than cure, especially in this case."

Police are appealing for anyone who may have seen anything suspicious to contact 01202 222222 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555111.