A cafe at the heart of an award-winning Bradford park has been severely damaged in a suspected arson attack.

The incident, which left Lister Park’s cafe and boathouse engulfed in smoke, has been described as a blow to the whole community, who regard the park as a “jewel in the crown” of the city.

And firefighters have revealed the building was just minutes from being completely destroyed. As things stand, the damage means the cafe will likely remain shut over the next few days – as people flock to the park to enjoy the warmest temperatures of the year. Boat hire for the nearby lake is also likely to be affected.

The fire service was called to the park in Manningham, one of the city’s biggest, at 10pm on Saturday after a member of the public spotted smoke. When a crew from Shipley arrived they found smoke coming out of “every nook and cranny” of the building.

Nick Hey, one of the firefighters called to the blaze, was familiar with the building’s layout, and helped lead a team wearing breathing gear into the cafe by knocking through the roller shutters.

The fire was in a storage area of the building and the fire brigade stopped it from spreading to the rest of the building. It is thought the fire started when someone piled rubbish against an outside wall and set it alight. At one point crews from Shipley, Bradford, Idle and Odsal were at the scene. Watch commander Philip Brown said the incident was “time critical” adding: “Had we got there just three minutes later we could well have lost the building.” They remained at the scene until the early morning, and with the help of locals managed to save most of the stock.

Ian Dobson, park ranger, said the Council would assess the damage today to see how long the building may be out of action. He added: “It is a shame for the area, I hope they find whoever did this.”

One of the cafe staff, who did not wish to be named, went to check out the damage the morning after the fire, and said: “We have been very busy, and we would have been busy today.”

He said the fire had been started deliberately and added: “Whoever knows anything about who did this needs to get in touch with the police, these people need to be punished. This is a great park and we get people from all cultures coming here. I was born and bred here, this is my back garden so it is a terrible shame.”

Police and the fire service are currently investigating the cause of the blaze.

Coun Shabir Hussain (Lab), who lives near the park, said: “It is shocking to me, I can’t believe someone could do something like that. It is the jewel in the crown of Bradford – we have an award-winning park and someone does this to it. I hope it is up and running soon, but even if it is down for a few days we will lose out. These people are taking happiness away from people who will go to the park in this wonderful weather.”