An early morning blaze at the Hometown Wal-Mart sent shoppers and employees fleeing to the safety of the parking lot during a snowstorm and damaged a portion of the sales area.

Police have determined that the fire was intentionally set.

Firefighters and other emergency responders from a wide region responded to the 2:25 a.m. alarm for a commercial structure fire at HT Commons Shopping Center, 35 Plaza Drive, in Rush Township.

The Schuylkill Communications Center call indicated a working fire at Walmart, specifically inside the building located adjacent to the outdoor and garden supply section of the store.

First responders reported flames and smoke showing at the rear of the store.

"It's in an area where they sell toys and discounted items," said Barry Messerschmidt, chief, Hometown Fire Co.

By the time responders arrived on scene all occupants inside the building had been evacuated to the parking lot.

There, employees stood and watched in biting wind, 20-degrees temperatures and heavy, swirling snow as firefighters hauled hoses and equipment in through the front doors.

Many employees used cell phones to call loved ones.

The area impacted the greatest by smoke, water and fire damage is the seasonal section where Christmas lighting and ornaments are typically featured. The affected area is situated just steps from the in-store pharmacy.

Dave Clewell Jr., officer in charge, Hometown Fire Co., said crews were awaiting arrival of the fire marshal. It was too early to determine the overall status of the situation, he said, until appropriate inspections are done.

"They'll have to wait for the board of health," he explained.

Responding were fire companies from Tamaqua, Quakake, Hometown, Delano, and Ryan Township, along with Tamaqua Rescue and Community Ambulance, and Hometown Fire Police.

Merle Wertman, fire police chief, along with other volunteers, cordoned off the parking lot with orange cones. Traffic during the middle of the night, however, and especially during the snowstorm, was light.

Messerschmidt said the cause of the fire remains under investigation.

The store remained closed for business and it is unclear when doors will reopen.