ONE of the oldest buildings in Wigan town centre which has become derelict and was recently used as a cannabis factory has been damaged by a major fire.
The blaze broke out on the top floor of the four-storey former bank and solicitors’ building off Wallgate at around 4.15am on Sunday and was tackled in an operation lasting several hours.
The building, which is adjacent to the Pure nightclub, opened in 1890 but has been empty for some time, with Greater Manchester Police (GMP) raiding it and discovering a huge cannabis-growing operation there several months ago.
Three rough sleepers were also using the first floor and as they were intoxicated had to be rescued by firefighters.
The age and condition of the building caused considerable problems for the fire crews, with restricted access down the narrow alleyways and every room full of debris from its recent use by the illegal drug trade.
Incident commander Steve Sheridan said: “It appears the building may have been being used as a squat by rough sleepers. We were able to rescue three people from the first floor and fight the fire on the fourth.
“This is one of the original buildings still left in Wigan town centre and as such there was no vehicle access to the rear due to access streets designed in the early 1900s.
“On arrival crews were confronted with a very difficult fire to access on the upper storey towards the rear of the property.
“Internally the building is four storey at the front with three storeys at the rear and comprised of approximately 20 rooms. Every room was full of the remnants of the cannabis production with heavy loading of bagged soil.”
The three rough sleepers who were escorted to safety told firefighters they were unsure if another person was in the building, leading crews to search three floors and the basement and use thermal imaging cameras to see if anyone was still inside.
Attempts to search the top floor where the fire broke out had to wait for daylight, and crews were still trying to sift through around one metre of debris on Sunday morning.
The three men rescued left the area without medical treatment and Greater Manchester Police (GMP) are attempting to trace them.
The incident caused Wallgate to be shut from its junction with King Street to the Last Orders pub until just after lunchtime on Sunday.
Pedestrian access was restored by mid-morning and all businesses except one pub and a charity shop were able to open for Sunday trading as normal.