December 13, 2005

UK fire crews see giant blaze out on Tuesday

By Kieran Doherty

HEMEL HEMPSTEAD (Reuters) - Firefighters pumping masses of
water and foam onto a major fire at a fuel depot north of
London hope to put out the blaze on Tuesday.

Fire crews worked night and day on the inferno -- described
by officials as the largest of its type in peacetime Europe --
which broke out on Sunday near the town of Hemel Hempstead.

Hertfordshire Chief Fire Officer Roy Wilsher said they had
extinguished all but one of the 20 fuel storage tank blazes and
were now capping some damaged valves still pumping oil.

"We are still confident that the fires will be extinguished
today," he said. "And I mean today as in Tuesday."

Police say they believe the fire, accompanied by a series
of huge explosions which rocked the surrounding area, was
caused by an accident but a full investigation will be carried

Officials said fears that the clouds of black smoke which
have billowed from the site for two days could cause major
health or environmental damage have so far proved unfounded.

"The sampling information we've had (of) air quality from
earlier on today from areas around the Buncefield site has not
given any cause for concern," said Jane Halpin from
Hertforshire Strategic Health Authority.

However she advised residents to stay inside with their
windows shut when the fire is finally put out and the plume of
black smoke begins to fall to earth.

"As the fire goes out we do expect more material at ground
level. This will be the case for another day or two," said
Michael Clark, chemical expert at the independent Health
Protection Agency.

"But this is mainly soot because the stuff being burned is
refined material, not heavy crude," he told Reuters. "It is not
a toxic plume. We are confident that whatever comes down will
not be life-threatening."


Some 180 firefighters have tackled the blaze, pumping more
than 15 million litres of water and a quarter of a million
litres of foam concentrate onto the flames, Wilsher said.

The fire crews had rolled out 30 km (more than 18 miles) of
hose to pump water onto the fire, he said.

"We've had no significant firefighter injuries," Wilsher
added. "It just shows how the plan has worked excellently."

Forty-three people were treated in hospital as a result of
the blasts and the fire but only two were seriously injured.

Schools within a 10 mile radius of the depot were closed on
Monday and Tuesday and some 2,000 people have been evacuated
from their homes. However police said homeowners were now
returning and most schools would reopen on Wednesday.

The fire has disrupted the business of several sizeable
British companies with premises nearby.

The country's biggest brewer, Scottish & Newcastle, said it
caused "significant" damage to its main distribution center for
its unit Waverly TBS (WTBS), a wine and spirits wholesaler.

The head office of software and outsourcing firm Northgate
Information Solutions, one of the UK's leading suppliers of
specialist software for human resources, was seriously damaged.

Shares in online fashion retailer ASOS were suspended after
the explosion damaged its warehouse.

The depot, the fifth-largest in Britain, is jointly owned
by oil companies Total and Texaco.