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Civil Defence & Emergency
~ Ngā Whakahaere Whawhati Tata

civil defence

Fire Involving Hazardous Substances

Many of Hawke's Bay's industrial and commercial businesses such as cool stores, canneries, freezing plants and manufacturers use hazardous substances in their day-to-day operation. These substances might include industrial gases, agricultural and horticultural chemicals and pesticides. A hazardous substance may be explosive, flammable, able to oxidise, corrosive, toxic or eco-toxic.

A fire in an industrial/commercial area that results in the combustion or release of a mix of hazardous substances, not just airborne but also as ground and run-off contamination, poses serious risks to fire fighters and people in the vicinity.

Such an event might destroy property, jeopardise watercourses and water supplies and threaten lives. People could require hospital care for burns or lung injuries. For safety reasons, the surrounding area might have to be evacuated until the fire is brought under control.

Previous events in Hawke's Bay

Hawke's Bay has a long history of fire events. The more serious involving hazardous substances have occurred with the development of technology and the growth of the region's industrial sector.

However, the first fires that started in Napier in the aftermath of the 1931 earthquake involved hazardous substances. The inferno began in three chemist shops in Emerson Street where inflammable stocks such as chloroform and collodion, phosphorus, paraffin and olive oil fuelled leaking gas jets that started the fires.

There have been numerous fires involving hazardous substances since then. The most recent was a large fire at VJ Distributors Limited in Hastings on Saturday, 4 March 2006. About 70 homes were evacuated because of toxic smoke from the oil-fuelled fire. About 200,000 litres of oil was stored on site and cleaning products were stockpiled in bulk containers in a warehouse.

The warehouse was completely destroyed, five houses were damaged and a number of homes downwind were enveloped in oil smoke. A huge plume of black oil smoke was so hot it melted concrete.

Using about 105 personnel, 15 appliances, an aerial unit and a command unit, it took fire services over five hours to bring the blaze under control.

Environmental officers also worked hard to minimise environmental damage after a nearby stream was contaminated and a lot of oil seeped into drains. A dam was set up in the stormwater system and effluent trucks used to recover the oil.

Thankfully, there were no long-term public health effects following the fire at VJ Distributors, although a number of people sought medical advice for minor respiratory irritations.

Future events

The risk of another such fire in Hawke's Bay is high, given the number of businesses using hazardous substances in their day-to-day operations.

The New Zealand Fire Service is the lead response agency for dealing with all urban fires. Its powers to manage fires are provided in the Fire Service Act 1975. The Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996 also contain specific powers for dealing with hazardous substances.

What can you do?

If you use hazardous substances you should:

  • Identify and name all chemicals. This information will be important during an emergency and should be available to emergency services if required.
  • Carefully and appropriately dispose of old supplies and chemicals that can't be identified.
  • Know how chemicals will react and handle them accordingly.
  • Get advice on correct and safe storage.
  • Check to establish whether a licence is needed for any large quantity of hazardous substances.

To help protect family, friends, property and the environment, refer to the Ministry for the Environment website's safety tips for handling, storing and transporting hazardous substances.

Fire safety tips can also be found on the New Zealand Fire Service website.

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