Hawkes Bay Civil Defence Emergency Management Group

Fire involving hazardous substances

In Hawke’s Bay there are many industrial and commercial businesses such as cool stores, canneries, freezing plants and manufacturers that use hazardous substances in their day-to-day business. These might include industrial gases, agricultural and horticultural chemicals and pesticides.  A hazardous substance is any substance that may be explosive, flammable, able to oxidise, corrosive, toxic or eco-toxic.  These might include industrial gases, agricultural and horticultural chemicals and pesticides.

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A fire in one of these industrial and commercial areas which results in the combustion or release of a mix of hazardous substances, not just airborne but also ground and run off contamination, poses serious risks to the people fighting the fire, as well as people in the vicinity.  The consequences of such an event would be the destruction of property, water courses and water supplies being jeopardised, possibly a small number of people killed, several people requiring hospital care for burns or lung injuries, and the surrounding area may need to be evacuated for safety reasons until the fire is brought under control.

A huge plume of black oil smoke caused by VJ’s fire was so hot that it melted concrete.  Photo courtesy of Hawke’s Bay Today
A huge plume of black oil smoke caused by VJ’s fire was so hot that it melted concrete. Photo courtesy of Hawke’s Bay Today
Previous events in Hawke’s Bay

There is a long history of fire events in Hawke’s Bay, but the more serious ones involving hazardous substances have only evolved as technology has developed and the region has grown industrially.

However, even in 1931 following the earthquake on the 3 February, the first fires starting in Emerson Street, Napier involved hazardous substances.  They began in three chemist shops with gas jets that started fires after the earthquake and were fuelled by inflammable stocks such as chloroform and collodion, phosphorous and oils like paraffin and olive.

There have been numerous hazardous substances fires since.  The most recent notable event, was a large fire at VJ Distributors Limited on Saturday 4 March 2006 in Hastings.  There was an evacuation of about 70 homes because of toxic smoke caused by the fire fuelled by oil (about 200,000 litres was stored on site) and cleaning products stored in bulk containers in a warehouse.

The warehouse was completely destroyed, five houses were damaged and a number of houses down wind were covered in oil smoke.

It took the fire service over 5 hours to bring the hazardous substances fire under control, using about 105 personnel, 15 appliances, an aerial unit and command unit.

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

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

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70 homes were evacuated during VJ's fire in 2006. (Photo K. Ferguson, HBRC)
70 homes were evacuated during VJ's fire in 2006. (Photo K. Ferguson, HBRC)
Future events

The risk of such a hazardous substances fire in Hawke’s Bay is high given the amount of businesses that use 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.

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What can you do?

If you use hazardous substances you should

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

To help protect your family, friends, property and the environment see the Ministry for Environment website which has safety tips for handling, storing and transporting hazardous substances www.mfe.govt.nz/issues/waste/special/agrichemicals/safety-tips.html

There are also fire safety tips on the New Zealand Fire Service website www.fire.org.nz.

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