Eleven firefighters were injured battling an “apocalyptic” blaze when 100,000 tonnes of plastic and paper recycling went up in flames after it was sparked by a CHINESE LANTERN.
Over 200 firefighters tackled the massive fire on a 300 square metre industrial estate in Smethwick, West Mids., in the biggest blaze West Midlands Fire Service has ever dealt with.
Thick plumes of black smoke billowed up to 6,000ft in the air and could be seen over 80 MILES away including Oxford, Coventry and by hundreds of motorists driving on the M40 and M1 motorways towards London.
Yesterday the Government was considering banning Chinese lanterns as a result of the blaze which witnesses described as “apocalyptic”.
Over 35 fire appliances as well as police and ambulance crews rushed to the scene after the fire broke out at 11pm at the Jayplas Recycling plant, on Dartmouth Road.
The smouldering wreckage of the gutted building continued to burn throughout Monday as fire bosses warned the flames could burn all week.
Fire services warned that major travel disruption may result, asking motorists to avoid the normally bust M5 junction 1 due to the acrid smoke.
West Midlands Fire Service axed 30 jobs and scrapped four appliances April as a result of having £21million cut from its budget.
As a result of the cuts the service will have 1,236 front-line firefighters in 2015 – 364 fewer than 2011.
The overstretched service received 420 emergency calls about the blaze and urged people to only call 999 in an emergency as overstretched crews battled the flames.
Area commander Steve Vincent said it was the biggest fire the UK’s second largest the service had seen in their 40-year history.
He said: “We haven’t evacuated any of the local residents because this is mainly an industrial area but we have had some minor injuries to some of our firefighters at the scene.
“We will have major congestion in this area because we will be fighting this fire for the next few days.
“This is the largest fire that we’ve had in the West Midlands.
“It is a major fire and we’ve got support from surrounding fire brigades to help us deal with this.”
A total of 35 fire appliances were scrambled with crews coming from Birmingham including three from Hereford and Worcester Fire Service and seven from Staffordshire Fire Service.
A spokesperson for West Midlands Fire Service said: “We believe that the fire was started by a sky lantern, which floated into the site at around 11pm last night (Sunday).
“Within two hours, 35 fire engines were involved. It called on so many of our resources that we had to call in support from neighbouring brigades (Hereford and Worcester, and Staffordshire).
“Ten of their appliances are still with us, and we are very grateful for their assistance.
“We have classified the fire as a Major Incident, due to the strain it has placed on our resources.
“Staff in our control room have so far taken 420 calls related to the incident.”
Shadow Fire Minister Chris Williamson was forced to cancel his planned visit to West Midlands Fire and Rescue Service while managers co-ordinated the huge fire-fighting effort.
Eleven firefighters needed medical treatment including three who were taken to hospital overnight.
They were treated for heat exhaustion, injuries to eyes and an ankle injury while another suffered a minor burn.
West Midlands Police closed nearby roads and brought in the force helicopter to relay images of the fire down to crews working on the ground.
Witnesses yesterday described the scenes – which could be seen as far away as Oxford – as “apocalyptic”.
Steven Bolton, 29, from Smethwick, said: “It was like a scene from a Hollywood blockbuster – I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.
“It was apocalyptic – there was just a wall of flames that extended as far as the eye could see.
“I could make out this silhouette of firefighters against this orange back drop.
“I could not believe what I was seeing. I’ve got a friend in Oxford who said he could see the smoke from the motorway. It was like hell on earth.”
Ian Dangerfield, a 46-year-old documentary maker from West Bromwich, said: “I went out the front door and could see the smoke going across the sky so I grabbed my camera. Police were stopping cars.
“It was absolute chaos. I’ve never known anything like it in my life.
James Gillespie, 34, who lives near the site, said: “It looked like images you see on TV of a massive forest fire in America.
“There was this terrifying wall of flame when I looked out of my window, it was like the apocalypse had come.”
Night shift worker Nikolai Kosecki, 30, from Smethwick said: “I came outside for a break and saw flames and the fire engines arriving. Luckily it seemed like the fire service came quickly.”
Another witness Jack Awal said: “It was like a scene from a movie. There were so many large explosions and loud bangs.
“It was like a firework display – there were loud crackles and bangs every few seconds.”
A spokesperson for West Midlands Ambulance Service said: “A total of 11 firefighters have been treated by ambulance service staff for a variety of minor injuries, though three were taken to hospital overnight.
“Injuries include heat exhaustion, injuries to eyes and an ankle as well as one minor burn.
“The Trust’s Hazardous Area Response Team remains on scene with two ambulance officers to provide support.
“Local residents continue to be asked to keep doors and windows shut as a precaution, but there is not thought to be any risk to health from the fire.”
The blaze has led to renewed calls for a ban on Chinese lanterns – dubbed “floating fireworks” – which have sparked huge fires in recent years.
Louise Staples, rural surveyor for farming union the NFU, said: “These types of lanterns may be fun and look pretty when they’re lit but they can pose a real danger to farms and farm animals, especially livestock in fields.
“Cattle can eat the wire in the lantern which finds its way into the silage they are fed.
“These lanterns can pose a serious risk if they land in a field of crops or straw.
“Perhaps worse is if they come down near a barn or even by a thatched house which could easily catch fire.”
The RSPCA added its support to the calls, even starting a petition for the ban.
A spokesman said: “Most people who release Chinese sky lanterns have no idea of the harmful and even deadly consequences they can have for animals.”
A separate petition on the government’s e-petition website in August 2012 gained over 5,000 signatures.
Labour MP for Warley, West Mids., John Spellar, said: “I have put a question to the Local Government Minister, Eric Pickles, asking him to consider banning the use of Chinese lanterns.
“I think following this fire and one recently down in Wyre Forest, there are serious questions as to how much stock recycling companies should have together on one site.”
Concerns have also been raised by RNLI, which has reported a large increase in the number of call-outs after the lights from lanterns were mistaken for distress flares.
The aviation industry has also warned against launching Chinese lanterns beneath its flight paths, claiming they could get sucked into plane engines.
The Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) recently warned people against releasing the lanterns, saying although they looked spectacular “once airborne they cannot be controlled”.
A spokesman said: “There is evidence of them causing fires, wasting police time, being mistaken for distress flares, misleading aircraft and killing livestock.
“The risk of these occurrences will only increase as the use of Chinese lanterns increases.
“CFOA does not support the use of these devices and asks members of the public and event organisers to refrain from using them.
“Whilst these lanterns are undoubtedly a popular and beautiful sight, the potential damage they can cause is significant.”
Chinese lanterns have already been banned in countries including Germany, Australia and parts of New Zealand.
Yesterday the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) warned people to be careful when setting off the lanterns.
A spokesman said: “Chinese lanterns are a fairly recent phenomenon in the UK and there is not a great deal of data relating to the problem.
“However, we have been made aware of concerns about the safe use of these products through sources, such as fire services, coastguards and the National Farmers Union.
“At present, we don’t know enough information to call for a ban but hope that retailers and importers take the lead and demand that their products are 100 per cent biodegradable, come with a high quality fuel source and, most importantly, come with comprehensive operating and safety instructions.”
PAST CHINESE LANTERN ACCIDENTS
June 14 2013: A farmer in Wicken, Cambridgeshire, calls for Chinese lanterns to be banned after one of his cows dies after eating one.
September 18 2012: Pensioner from Flintshire, North Wales has a lucky escape after a Chinese lantern burned through her conservatory roof while she was asleep.
July 11 2011: Mother-of-two from Wiltshire’s family home is set alight by a Chinese lantern. She and two young children were only saved because a neighbour spotted the flames.
November 10 2010: Three-year-old boy from Penycae, North Wales, is almost blinded after boiling wax from a Chinese lantern falls on his face.