A large fire in a British factory may have caused the release of hazardous asbestos into the atmosphere, according to local fire officials. Environmental investigators on the scene recommended that residents near the Hawthorns Trading Estate facility in West Midlands region of England keep their windows closed and suggested that they stay indoors.
More than a hundred firefighters had been battling the blaze across two buildings, which also required more than twenty fire trucks and several alarms, before getting the fire under control. Fire officials have reported that no firefighters were hurt during the operation and that no civilian casualties had been found. The smoke from the fire was visible from as far away as the city of Birmingham.
A spokesman for the West Midlands Fire Department said that the fire had been labeled as a “level two asbestos incident” and that the smoke, which may contain high concentrations of asbestos, is carrying across Birmingham and not dropping the hazardous particles down on the city itself. Firefighters on the scene were outfitted with special breathing masks, in addition to their standard protective gear, to shield them from the worst aspects of potential asbestos exposure.
Fire and police officials have called for road traffic detours away from the scene, as well as shutting down commuter train stations near the fire site. The factory also sits near a stadium for a popular local professional soccer team. One eyewitness at the scene related his experience of watching one of the buildings collapse and seeing asbestos “being thrown to the floor” while the blaze jumped to two other nearby structures.
Fire department investigators are studying the remains of the blaze, which they believe originated in a cloth recycling facility called Monty’s Tropical Rags. The collapse of the facility’s roof led local officials to mandate the asbestos alert. During that blaze, two other buildings on the same block, one next door and the other across the street, also caught fire. While arson investigators have not yet reached any conclusions, they have labeled the fires as “extremely suspicious”.
The presence of asbestos and other highly dangerous substances still left in the debris of the cloth recycling facility may complicate any ongoing investigation of the site. Local officials have yet to announce any decisions or plans for asbestos abatement and remediation of the site. If steps are not taken to remove the asbestos from the rubble, then investigators on site may be in danger of asbestos exposure. If the asbestos and other toxins are removed from the site, then those efforts may inadvertently remove vital evidence from the scene.
Firefighters used almost thirty water pumps to combat the blaze and even drained hundreds of gallons of water from a nearby canal to supplement their supplies. Police helped to evacuate workers from several nearby businesses during the fire, many of whom left their belongings and vehicles behind. Some of those who were evacuated reported seeing a tall spire of black smoke and smelling the burning materials as they made their way out.
Sources: BBC, Birmingham Mail