West Footscray factory inferno under control but smoke alert remains

TOXIC smoke from one of Melbourne’s biggest fires in decades is still blowing across several western suburbs this morning as firefighting experts warn it won’t be put out for three or four days.

Strong chemical fumes remain noticeable around the West Footscray fire site today.

Recycled canisters of flammable paint and aerosols were believed to be the cause of ongoing explosions throughout the day, and the fire was deemed under control after a 20 hour-long battle by fire crews.

Staff members from neighbouring businesses are waiting by a roadblock at Paramount Rd unsure if they will have to work today.

Joe Salih said the Leading Car Sales car yard where he works was closed yesterday due to a “shocking smell”.

“We just hope the toxic fumes haven’t done any damage to the business, but we don’t know,” he said.

He said it was unclear if it would be able to reopen today.

The fight continued overnight to put out the mass inferno after a West Footscray industrial shed, where hazardous chemicals were stored, went up in flames, blanketing the sky in thick black smoke with explosions punctuating the emergency.

The MFB declared the fire as under control just after 10pm, but warned there would be smoke in the area for “some time” and residents should continue to monitor conditions.

The inferno was half the size of the MCG and forced road closures, shut schools and forced businesses to send home workers.

Schools and early childhood centres were set to reopen on Friday.

Fire chiefs said the blaze would burn for days to come. Firefighters would remain on scene until the clean-up was complete.

The exact cause of the fire is still unknown.

Firefighters said the blaze was one of the biggest in Melbourne for a long time but there was no reason to believe it was suspicious at this stage.

Residents on Thursday night gathered at the Footscray Town Hall where they were briefed about the blaze.

Many were angry, saying the industrial area needed to be investigated because there was a lack of transparency about potential health risks.

Locals also said they were frustrated at a lack of communication from authorities on Thursday, saying they resorted to social media to find out what was going on.

Some at the meeting were also worried about long-term health problems linked to the fire and the impact on the environment, with large amounts of toxic run-off seeping into Stony Creek.

More than 140 firefighters battled the fire from the ground and in the air on Thursday, with the smoke seen as far away as Geelong.

The warehouse owners told the Herald Sun they were working with authorities, as was their truck company tenant, to determine the cause.

“We are pretty shocked and devastated and just relieved that nobody was hurt,” the owner said.

“It’s a good thing that it happened at five in the morning and not during the day when there would have been a lot of people there. I feel sorry for people because there has been so much disruption which doesn’t help the city.”

The fire started about 5am at the intersection of Somerville and Paramount roads, 9km west of the CBD.

It quickly engulfed the factory but luckily did not spread to neighbouring businesses.

Residents in 10 suburbs were originally on a watch and act alert, which was increased to 20 suburbs later in the afternoon. The building contained asbestos and crews tried to reduce the risk of fibres spreading into the air.

Fanning the blaze was the highly flammable acetone, commonly found in nail polish remover, and oxy-acetylene, sparking health fears. Firefighters were on Thursday night battling to put out the hot spot in the middle of the factory after managing to contain the building’s boundary.

Assistant chief fire officer Rob Purcell said the smoke was damaging to health, and authorities were keeping in close contact with hospitals to monitor if there were spikes in respiratory problems.

“All smoke is toxic. This is particularly black — there’s probably some hydrocarbons in there, that’s the reason it’s the colour it is,” he said.

Premier Daniel Andrews was briefed by Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp on Thursday morning and said it was a “very, very challenging fire”.