A FIRE at Grafton Shoppingworld this morning forced the evacuation of some 800 shoppers.
The fire, which was initially thought to be deliberately lit, began in a storeroom in the centre's lower car park near the southern escalator shortly after 9am.
Grafton police duty officer Inspector Brendan Gorman said though the fire was being treated as suspicious, the cause of the blaze is unknown and a possible electrical fault has not been ruled out.
An automatic fire alarm prompted an immediate response from Grafton Fire Brigade who arrived on the scene at 9.20am but the the centre's sophisticated sprinkler system had doused the flames by the time firefighters reached the scene.
Brigade Captain Garry Reardon said it appeared arsonists had accessed the store room and set some cardboard boxes alight.
"The sprinkler system did a tremendous job," Cpt Reardon said.
As shoppers were cleared out of the centre, he said, firefighters conducted atmospheric monitoring to ensure the centre was not toxic.
Firefighters also had to replace the sprinkler which had gone off. The sprinkler's heat-sensitive glass valve had broken as part of its primary function.
Shoppingworld marketing manager Kelle Murphy said shoppers were marshalled out of the building at 9.15am and allowed back in the complex at 11.10am.
Though difficult to quantify, the break in trading was expected to cost traders thousands of dollars.