An investigation is underway today after a fire brought a busy shopping centre to a virtual standstill.

Smoke billowed from the blaze in the derelict storage shed through Portswood High Street to the point where drivers were forced to use headlights and pedestrians could barely see in front of them.

Some businesses and shops were evacuated and the Waitrose store was closed after firefighters advised those caught in the smoke cloud to remain inside and close windows and doors.

In scenes similar to last week when a huge fire took hold of a pile of scrap metal at Southampton Docks, people could be seen walking the streets using clothing to cover their faces while police officers manned traffic around a cordon that had been set up along Portswood Road between the junctions of Alma Road and Gordon Road.

Some residents could not return to their homes for several hours while firefighters tackled the blaze that broke out just before 3.15pm.

The cause of the fire within the disused industrial building was today under investigation.

A total of 37 firefighters spent several hours tackling the blaze. Initially it was feared there may have been potentially hazardous gas cylinders inside the sheds.

Station commander Rob Cole from St Mary’s said an aerial ladder platform was used to allow crews tackle the fire before jets from ground level were used to eventually extinguish it.

Nearby shop owner Pat Brownsea said he was closing up his Portswood Domestic store following advice from the fire service.

He said: “You can certainly smell the asphalt burning and they don’t know what else could be in there at the moment. It has been causing an incredible amount of smoke though.”

Owner of the building at the centre of the blaze John Venables said it had been semi derelict for years but used to be part of the Lowman’s Bakery site.

He added that the site had been earmarked for development and that plans were before Southampton City Council to turn it into homes.

Witnesses spoke of seeing flames engulf the premises as the fire quickly took hold.

Student Alex El-Batal, 21, who lives nearby, said: “We have been watching it for a while and we could see the flames from the window. The roof of one of the buildings looked like it had collapsed in.”

The road closures remained in place until the evening with police officers manning a diversion.