Buncefield 180This week [11 December] marks ten years since the explosion and fire at the Buncefield Oil Storage Terminal in Hertfordshire FRS Chief Fire Officer Roy Wilsher has described as the "biggest incident in the Service's history".

At 6:02 on Sunday 11 December 2005, a fuel vapour explosion equivalent to 30 tonnes of TNT at the Hemel Hempsted depot triggered a blast wave which was heard as far away as Holland. While nobody was killed in the explosion or the three day blaze which followed – the fire remains the largest ever in peacetime Europe.

Read CFO Wilsher's personal reflections on Buncefield 10 years on in Dec/Jan's FIRE Magazine - click here to subscribe from just £30+VAT

CFO Wilsher was Gold Commander for the incident and said: “The Buncefield fire was by far the biggest incident the Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service has ever dealt with, and I’m very proud of our response. We had plans to tackle an incident at the site and thankfully those worked well. To give you some indication of scale, we used 53 million litres of water and nearly 800 thousand litres of foam to bring the fire under control. Over 1000 members of staff from across a range of services played a role in our response.

"Our fire fighters worked incredibly hard with colleagues from across the country and it’s a testament to their professionalism that we managed to contain the blaze."

The explosion registered as 2.4 on the Richter scale while the blast wave shook buildings 25 miles away, rattling windows and letterboxes on the coast and was heard on mainland Europe. The smoke produced by the fire spread out across London, the south East and eventually across France to become visible from outer-space (see image above left).

Jon Batchelor was in charge of the first fire engine on the scene. "Everyone heard the bang so we were ready for a big fire but nothing could have prepared us for the scene we were confronted with," he said.

"As we arrived at the business park we could see flames climbing hundreds of feet into the dark sky, making it almost seem like daylight. It was a scene of utter devastation, with buildings severely damaged and glass and debris lying across the road. It was simply the biggest fire that I had ever seen and I immediately radioed the control room and declared it a major incident. That’s normally a big decision, and one that would be taken by someone a lot more senior than me, but in the circumstances it was a very easy call to make."

Lessons learnt
Hertfordshire’s response helped form today’s national template for tackling major incidents. The lessons learnt from the incident also led to improvements in how fire services work together and plan for similar events in future.

More than 1,000 staff and 25 fire engines were involved in dealing with the incident with more than 20 Fire Services from across the country, including crews from as far away Greater Manchester, Cumbria and South Wales, helped HFRS tackle the blaze which burned for 3 days before finally being bought under control on the 13 December.

Richard Thake, Hertfordshire County Council Cabinet Member for Community Safety, added: “Make no mistake, the Buncefield explosion was a disaster. Not in terms of loss of life, but certainly measuring huge damage done to the local economy and people’s lives. It speaks volumes that the county council and its partners have been able to re-establish the Maylands Business Park which is, once again, a thriving hub of enterprise.”

The business community has responded so strongly since the incident that George Osborne recently announced the creation of an Enterprise Zone in West Hertfordshire including Maylands Business Park. This zone is set to deliver thousands of jobs and attract hundreds of new businesses.

Cllr Andrew Williams, Leader of Dacorum Borough Council, said: "I believe that the Enterprise Zone has the potential to become of international importance, representing a key gateway to London and the UK for global investors wanting advanced manufacturing and distribution space, as well as high tech, potentially exemplar sustainable office provision. This opportunity also paves the way to supply business start-up and small business incubation space as well as move on space for growing businesses."

Find out more about the response to the Buncefield incident both on the day and beyond from CFO Wilsher in Dec/Jan's FIRE Magazine - click here to subscribe from just £30+VAT