About 20 people were forced to flee a motel in Apollo Bay after the fire ripped through the area on Collingwood Street at 3.30am.
“It was huge, we saw it and it was almost the second floor type thing just shooting up through the roof,” local woman Janine said.
Two eateries, including the Blue Bird Fish and Chips and a Chinese restaurant, were burnt to the ground while a nearby hardware store was significantly damaged.
The tourist town struggled through COVID, now those businesses have been even harder.
“They opened all of COVID and worked their bums off and to see them devastated … terrible for the town,” witness Janine Rose said.
Sadly, the local Chinese restaurant that was destroyed closed through COVID, and is understood to be where the fire started.
“They’re upset, their business is now destroyed so they’re trying to deal with that at the moment,” Detective Senior Constable Scott Chandler said.
Commander Mark Gunning of the Country Fire Authority said the fire affected many of the rooms at the neighbouring Comfort Motor Inn.
“Thirty five rooms were evacuated, smoke filled the area and the rooms around the motel,” he said.
Guests were warning one another to evacuate the premises.
“It was another guest saying ‘fire evacuate, then next door – fire, evacuate’,” witness Anna Howell said.
Drivers were asked to avoid the area while preliminary while authorities assessed the scene.
At the height of the blaze, about 60 firefighters were on the scene working to control it.
Fire crews spent more than 15 hours putting out hotspots, using an excavator and cherry picker.
Police interviewed one of the business owners today and determined the blaze was not suspicious.
Apollo Bay experienced wind gusts of up to 33km/h today but some light rain throughout helped efforts to put out any remaining fire.
“Several shops have been impacted and about 20 people evacuated from the Apollo Bay Comfort Motor Inn,” Police Forward Commander Sergeant Damian Bould said on Facebook.
“Fortunately no one has been injured. Causation is yet to be determined.
“We expect the recovery process and investigation to take some time. Please avoid the area if possible.”
The fire was brought under control about 6.30am after up to 11 CFA crews battled the blaze.
Colac Crime Investigation Unit detectives are appealing for anyone with mobile phone or Dash Cam footage to come forward.