December 12, 2005

Fire crews move in to tackle UK fuel blaze

By Dylan Martinez

HEMEL HEMPSTEAD (Reuters) - Fire crews moved in to battle
one of Europe's biggest industrial blazes on Monday -- an
inferno at a fuel depot north of London -- after being held
back for 24 hours by heat and environmental worries.

The fire broke out shortly before dawn on Sunday after a
wave of explosions ripped through the depot at Hemel Hempstead,
injuring 43 people.

Police said the blasts, which blew out windows and doors
from nearby houses, appeared to be an accident.

On Monday, the area immediately around the Buncefield depot
was a charred wasteland of burned out cars, shattered trees and
scorched grass.

A huge plume of thick, black smoke rose higher than 10,000
feet as it drifted southwest.

But contrary to initial fears, there was no indication that
it was either highly toxic or coming back down to earth.

"At the moment it appears to be mostly particulates
(soot)," said Michael Clarke of the independent Health
Protection Agency. "We have no reports so far of elevated
levels at ground level," he told Reuters.

The blasts, heard up to 100 miles away, had initially
raised fears of a possible repeat of the deadly wave of suicide
bombings in London in July.

Firefighters spent Sunday night discussing with
environmental authorities how to tackle the blaze with
fire-quenching foam without polluting local water supplies.

"This is the largest fire of this kind we in the UK or
Europe have dealt with," Hertfordshire's Chief Fire Officer,
Roy Wilsher told reporters on Monday morning. "We are in
uncharted territory.

But by noon the mood was cautiously optimistic.

"We have made very good progress. Fires on 10 of the 20
tanks have been put out, but the next hour is critical," said a
brigade spokeswoman.


British newspapers cleared their front pages on Monday for
dozens of pictures of the fire under headlines such as "Vision
of Doomsday," "Cloud of Doom" and "Black Sunday."

The depot supplies petrol and fuel oils to a large part of
southeast England, including Luton and Heathrow airports.

A government spokesman said that when full, the depot holds
five percent of Britain's oil supply, but could not say how
much it was holding before the blast.

Officials said the explosions were unlikely to cause fuel
shortages and urged motorists to avoid panic-buying of petrol.

The depot, the fifth largest in Britain, is jointly run by
oil companies Total and Texaco. There was no initial estimate
of the cost of the blaze.

Britain's worst oil fire disaster was the 1988 blaze aboard
the North Sea Piper Alpha rig in which 167 workers died.