When Saber al-Taher received the call from the security system after midnight on Saturday, he thought maybe someone had tried to steal something from his autobody shop near Sherman Avenue and Barton Street.

"Then I see the fire, I said 'No way. No way. Unbelievable,'" he told CBC Hamilton.

A three-alarm fire ripped through an industrial complex on Princess Street around midnight, sending fireballs into the night sky and producing smoke that affected residents from as far as the Mountain area.

Al-Taher, who said he owns the building and one of the shops in it, said about 160 cars in his shop were damaged by the fire.

"There's nothing left. Just the sign," he said.

The building is about 100 years old and houses several autobody businesses, according to Fire Safety Officer Dave Christopher.

Hamilton autobody shop fire

Shop owner Saber al-Taher says as many as 160 cars were damaged by the fire. (Sunnie Huang/CBC)

Firefighters arrived to find a "heavy volume of fire" and immediately upgraded the fire to three alarms, Christopher said.

Several cylinders with flammable liquids inside the building exploded. Firefighters also dealt with several car fires.

Some firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion. No other injuries were reported.

Residents within several blocks of the fire were evacuated as precaution. They were allowed to return around 6 a.m. Saturday morning, Christopher said.

At the height of the fire, there were about 75 firefighters and 24 fire trucks at the scene, Christopher said.

"A large portion of the city's fire trucks were there," he said.

The Ministry of the Environment was also called in to monitor air quality.

"They didn't find anything of concern," Christopher said.

The Ontario fire marshal has been called in to investigate.

Once the investigation is over, Christopher said it is possible that the building would be demolished because it is structurally unsafe and "there's not much left."

As firefighters remained at the scene to manage hot spots on Saturday, al-Taher looked on from behind the police block.

"It doesn't make sense," he said.

Al-Taher said he has been running the business for seven years with a team of five people. Even though updates on the condition of his property have been scarce, he said he isn't leaving the scene any time soon.

"I'm always here. Where I got to go? Where I got to go?"