Recycling centre fire highlights the wider impact of fire

When fire breaks out in a building the results can be devastating.  While it’s easy to think of the initial impact on property and human life, there are a number of less immediate and adverse consequences on the natural environment which can be equally devastating. A fire that completely destroyed a plastic recycling warehouse in Lancashire this week, and could be seen across northwest England, has once again highlighted the very significant impact that affects so much more than the building owner and insurer.  

The blaze at the recycling centre in Newton-Le-Willows on the 20th May began in the yard, where large quantities of plastic containers were kept and then spread to a main brick building on site. It took twenty fire engines, two aerial appliances, two high volume pumps and over a hundred firefighters to bring the fire under control and it was eventually extinguished 12 hours later. Roads were closed temporarily, train services adjacent to the facility disrupted and the local council warned residents to stay indoors and keep windows and doors shut due to the harmful smoke which continued to linger after the fire was put out. A nearby caravan park was also evacuated.

Whilst air quality has been at its best for years during the Covid pandemic due to sharp falls in road traffic, a fire such as this produced toxic smoke plumes which drifted northwards across large residential areas of Lancashire. High volumes of smoke contain harmful contaminants such as carbon dioxide, phenols and particulates, which can be severely hazardous to people’s health, especially at a time when people with respiratory and Covid-19 problems need to be protected.

Furthermore, fire water run-off will need to be monitored by the environment agency and there is the environmental impact of disposing of the damaged property and the costs, resources and materials required to rebuild it.

Sadly, fires such as this occur on a regular basis and remain one of the leading causes of commercial property loss. Having sprinklers fitted would have protected the adjacent building and have made the job of the fire and rescue service in controlling the fire that more manageable. Sprinkler systems minimise the wider impact of unmanageable fires, reducing costs to business and the economy as a whole.

Today automatic fire sprinklers are not widely used in the UK because the guidance rarely prescribes their use. Yet automatic fire sprinklers prevent large fires because they activate automatically over a fire, controlling or even extinguishing the blaze before the Fire and Rescue Service arrives. They therefore save lives and reduce injuries, protect firefighters who attend incidents and reduce the amount of damage to both property and the environment from fire.