Wrecker's yard blaze triggers disaster alert

By Juliet zRowan, Juliet Rowan

A man is critically ill after a huge blaze triggered a disaster alert and sent clouds of acrid black smoke across Tauranga yesterday.

Firefighters faced a potentially explosive mix of tyres, car wrecks, oil, LPG containers and an 11,000-volt transformer as they battled the fire, which began at 3pm in a wrecker's yard.

The injured man, a worker at the yard, was in a critical condition in Tauranga Hospital last night.

The fire turned a large warehouse at the yard, Metal Men on Koromiko St, into a ruin of twisted metal and caused gridlock in the area.

The cause of the blaze was unknown, but a fire safety officer said it was possible it had started in welding equipment being used by the injured man.

Workers at a nearby metal recycler heard a loud bang before the fire began.

Cordons were set up as smoke spread across the city, creating chaos as rush-hour traffic blocked main roads including Waihi Rd and the expressway from Tauriko to Mt Maunganui.

A large crowd gathered outside the yard as fire crews from Tauranga, Te Puke and Omokoroa fought to keep the flames from spreading to other buildings in the mainly industrial area.

Among the crowd were workers from the yard and neighbouring businesses, many covered in soot.

Arapeta Raukawa, who works at a metal recycler's behind the yard, said he was ordered out of his building soon after hearing an explosion.

"I was crushing some metal and I heard a big bang," he said.

The 17-year-old said a couple of minutes passed, then his boss came in and told him and his workmates to run.

"That's when the fire was going hard," he said.

Machine foreman Henry Terry said the fire took less than five minutes to take hold.

"The flames were shooting straight up the side of the building and along the walls and the ceiling," he said. "There was nothing we could do. She was up."

His first thought when he got outside was, "Is everyone out?"

A workmate of the injured man said he had received burns to his arms and back.

The injured man was outside by the time firefighters arrived, but crews helped to get a woman out of a building at the front of the yard. She was unharmed.

Tauranga's chief fire officer Ron Devlin said the "incredibly inflammable" materials at the yard created a dangerous and difficult situation.

"There was an enormous risk of conflagration, or fire spreading from one building to those surrounding it," he said. "The guys had to work pretty bloody hard."

Crews were also battling a water shortage.

Among the hazards posing the biggest threat was an 11,000 kilovolt transformer, located about 5m behind a pile of wrecked cars that caught alight. Firefighters stood with hoses trained on the cars to keep the flames away from the transformer.

Elsewhere in the yard flames continued to burn in patches.

Fire safety officer Ken McKeagg said an investigation would be launched into the blaze, which possibly began when the injured man was using welding equipment.

"We know where [it started], we just don't know how," he said.

Emergency services were on alert for several hours because of the possibility of the fire spreading and the smoke worsening.

Tauranga Hospital's emergency manager, Andrew Keenan, said the concern was not only for the public.

"In this situation, we're concerned about the number of firefighters on the ground."

Elsewhere across the country fire crews battled numerous blazes yesterday. In Canterbury homes were threatened and scrub land destroyed.

Southern Fire Communications shift manager Brian Sharpe told NZPA a number of fires started about 2pm when the winds changed from a southerly to a northwesterly.

* An elderly woman is in an induced coma after breathing in toxic fumes after a weekend fire destroyed an industrial warehouse in Hastings.

Hazel Handcock, who lives across the road from the factory, was taken to hospital with respiratory problems the morning after the toxic blaze.

She is now in an induced coma and her family questioned whether the fire could be responsible.

"It's just a shock," a family member told One News. "She has never been sick in her life and now she's in intensive care."

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