Inquiry launched into handling of Takaka factory fire

The Fire Service has launched an inquiry into how it handled the Takaka dairy factory fire last week.

About 500 Takaka residents may have been evacuated unnecessarily on Tuesday night as it has now been revealed that chemicals, which were thought to be lethal if combined, would have produced nothing more than heat and a cloud of steam.

The Fire Service today said it was investigating its actions on the night as part of standard procedure for a fire of that size.

Meanwhile, Fonterra announced today it will be using the factory to process milk this season.

The company's manufacturing general manager Brent Taylor said a key piece of the factory's equipment, the milk dryer, was not a total loss, and Fonterra expected it would be able to use it to process milk into milk powder this season.

Processing would not be able to start when the season begins in late July or early August, because a new building would have to be erected, Mr Taylor said.

Processing was likely to start a few months into the season, he said.

Milk would also still be taken to the Brightwater and Kaikoura factories, and later at the peak of the season, to Clandeboye factory near Timaru too, he said.

Mr Taylor met with Fonterra staff in Takaka this morning and will be returning on July 25 to announce Fonterra's final decision on the factory's future.

Until then, all the factory staff would be paid, he said.

Fonterra had both business interruption insurance and material damage insurance, so the Takaka fire would not affect payouts to dairy farmers.

Fire Service regional assistant commander Mark Chubb was also in Takaka today, assisting with inquiries.

The service will not be revealing the cause of the fire until Fonterra's insurance assessors complete their investigation.

Mr Chubb said the Fire Service inquiry was an attempt to identify lessons from the fire.

He confirmed there appeared to be no risk to the public from a chemical spill and said it was not yet understood how the misinformation over a possible toxic gas leak developed.

But he said: "It (the evacuation) was probably the right call at the time, given the uncertainty."

Fonterra Clandeboye operations manager Alan Bennett, who is responsible for six of the seven Fonterra South Island sites, has acknowledged there was no chemical danger to the 500 residents evacuated during the evening.

The sulphuric acid and caustic soda stored at the factory in two silos would have neutralised each other to create heat, but not toxic fumes, he said.

However, Mr Bennett said Takaka fire chief Philip Woolf did the right thing evacuating people in the absence of better information.

"Something to learn out of this is to make sure we have a closer relationship with the brigade. I can't compliment the Fire Service enough."

- NZPA

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