December 13, 2005

UK fire crews say giant oil blaze put out

By Kieran Doherty

HEMEL HEMPSTEAD (Reuters) - Firefighters extinguished all
major blazes and began mopping up on Tuesday after a three-day
inferno at a fuel depot north of London.

But even as the final flames were damped down a major row
erupted over the preparedness of the local fire brigade to deal
with the biggest peacetime blaze in Europe.

"All the tanks are out now and they are just tackling fires
in some pools of fuel on the ground. There is no risk of any
further explosions or eruptions. They are just mopping up now,"
a spokeswoman for Hertfordshire Fire Brigade told Reuters.

But while congratulations poured in for the fire crews from
16 different brigades who were called in to tackle the fire
that began with a series of major explosions on Sunday morning,
the fire brigades union (FBU) went on the offensive.

"Hertfordshire fire authority was woefully ill-prepared to
deal with anything but the most minor oil fire," the union
said, stating that it had no specialist foam spraying vehicles,
stocks of foam or officers trained to tackle a major oil fire.

Local fire chief Roy Wilshire hit back: "I am stunned by
the inaccuracy and venom of this release from the FBU. Their
claims are utter nonsense."

Fire crews had worked day and night on the massive blaze at
Buncefield oil depot near the town of Hemel Hempstead that sent
a pall of black smoke high into the sky, casting a long shadow
across a swathe of southern England.

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

Police say they believe the fire was caused by an accident,
but a full investigation will now get under way.

Officials said fears the clouds of smoke could cause major
health or environmental damage had so far proved unfounded.

However, local residents were advised to stay inside with
their windows shut as the remains of the plume began to settle.

"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 liters of water and a quarter of a million
liters of foam concentrate onto the flames.

But despite the battle there had been no major injuries
among fire fighters, Wilshire said.

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