An attempt to set Gateway Plaza on fire was thwarted by quick-acting firefighters on Sunday morning.
Members of the Warrnambool Fire Brigade raced to the scene when sprinklers were set off about 4.30am.
Detective Senior Constable Derek Verity, of Warrnambool police, said a Warrnambool man had been charged with three counts of arson.
He said CCTV footage showed the 35-year-old man light three separate fires in skip bins and a loading dock at the rear entrance of Gateway Plaza.
Firefighters worked for about an hour to put out the blaze.
Warrnambool Fire Brigade senior station officer Peter Hall said the blaze could have easily spread to the shopping centre.
"It was potentially pretty serious," Mr Hall said.
Detective Senior Constable Verity said the situation could have been much worse.
"If the sprinkler system hadn't worked efficiently it could have engulfed the Gateway Plaza," he said.
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