Over recent months Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) has faced significant operational demand at waste fires and high risk waste sites around the county. The problem is not unique to the county and the scale of the wider national issue of industrial scale fly-tipping and the storage of ‘illicit waste’ is most certainly unrealised. Figures released by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in March 2017 indicate over 12,000 instances of reported fly-tipping took place in Staffordshire in 2015/2016.
Both types of waste site pose significant fire risks and when fires do occur, the resulting firefighting conditions are often complex and arduous, requiring a huge number of resources and close multi-agency coordination to minimise the impact on local residents and the environment.
From the start I have been clear that this is a problem that Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service is committed to addressing, working in close partnership with other authorities and organisations.
In February 2017, we initiated a Staffordshire wide Strategic Agencies Group to address the issue. This group is made up of representatives from all of the local councils, Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service, Staffordshire Police, the Environment Agency, the DVSA and Highways England.
This is a serious issue that we collectively need to tackle and the formation of the group was essential in making sure our work is done in conjunction with our partners, as we all have a part to play in this battle.
There is an awful lot of work which is undertaken to understand the fire risk that sites pose. We gather very detailed information about each site, including building composition, local water sources and geographical restrictions, and all of these criteria are used to create an action plan tailored to that specific site. So in the event of a fire we can make quick but well informed decisions.
The following case studies give an overview of three significant incidents in the county which should give an insight into the problems we are facing.
Case study one – Oak Tree Farm, Slitting Mill, Rugeley
On Monday 5 September 2016 firefighters were called to a farm, used for the storage and disposal of waste, after a controlled burn of wood waste appeared to have got out of control.
They worked through the night, with two appliances at the scene, to contain the fire and make sure it didn’t spread to adjacent buildings and a nearby railway line. At one stage, up to 400 tonnes of waste is thought to have been alight.
Joint follow-up site visits with partners from the Environment Agency, Cannock Chase Council’s Environmental Health Team and Network Rail took place to assess the issues the site posed and consider viable options to deal with the burning waste. Initially attempts were made to move the waste into smaller piles to let it burn-out but this tactic allowed the fire to produce too much smoke.
Weeks later the waste was still burning and following a Tactical Assessment Meeting (TAM) the multi-agency decision was taken to cap the burning stack with soil. Diggers were used to move huge amounts of earth to create a fire break or ‘cap’. Capping with soil was the preferred option for dealing with this difficult fire as using water would generate harmful run-off which would contaminate local water sources and endanger wildlife. This action was not intended to extinguish the fire but to provide a fixed barrier to significantly reduce the amount of smoke being released from the site. Specialist equipment was required to undertake this capping work outside the capability of the current provision available through national resilience assets.
However, over time the waste began to produce smoke again and further site visits were necessary to recap the waste. The waste continues to burn and break-down. As this happens it needs recapping every couple of months which incurs additional costs for the use of specialist equipment.
Air quality monitoring was undertaken by environmental health officers at the site to ensure any smoke released was of low risk to local residents.
In Spring 2017, two men were served a high court injunction, prohibiting any further importation or processing of material at the site. This action followed an interim injunction which was served on the men in November 2016 by Staffordshire County Council.
The men, an operative and the landowner, were also ordered to foot the bill to clean-up the site and costs were awarded to Staffordshire County Council.
Case study two – Hanbury Plastics, Milton, Stoke-on-Trent
Over 100 calls were received on the morning of Sunday 6 February 2017 when a fire broke out at waste storage facility in Stoke-on-Trent.
Initially four appliances attended along with a control vehicle, an aerial ladder platform and high volume pump but at the height of the incident six pumps were needed to tackle the blaze.
On arrival the 100 metre by 60 metre building, which was full of and surrounded by bailed plastic, was well alight. The roof of the building collapsed and firefighters had to tackle the fire defensively. The fire continued to burn throughout the week and eventually part of the building was demolished to allow firefighters better access to the materials within.
During this incident the Service worked closely with Stoke-on-Trent City Council, the Environment Agency and local schools and businesses to ensure everyone in the area was as safe as possible and safety messages were issued referring to the substantial smoke coming from the incident.
A detailed and complex fire investigation followed which concluded the blaze was caused deliberately and a police investigation is ongoing.
The Service used a contractor to assist with access to the site and heavy lifting through a Heavy Rescue Partnership. This partnership was launched in 2008 and involves the service working with vehicle fleet operators and the insurance industry, to enable more efficient rescue and recovery operations at incidents involving heavy loads.
The services of a Rapid Relief Team provided crews with welfare and refreshments in the early stages of the incident. The final appliance left the scene on 20 February.
Case study three – Gladings Wood, Madeley Heath, Newcastle-under-Lyme
At the end of January 2017 an industrial scale fly-tipping took place at a beauty spot in Madeley Heath, near Newcastle-under-Lyme.
Approximately 300 tonnes of commercial waste was dumped on a car park and well-used public footpath. The car park and footpath are maintained by Staffordshire County Council and the outlying woodland is leased by the Forestry Commission.
An emergency action plan was created due to the fire risk the site posed. This contained relevant site information, including waste composition, local water sources and detailed the level of impact a fire would have upon the local infrastructure. This detailed plan would allow a coordinated approach to any incident at the site and keep disruption to the local community to a minimum.
The waste consisted of mixed materials, including paper, which posed a significant risk of ignition. Therefore, firefighters regularly attended to monitor the heat levels and ‘damp down’ the waste when required.
At the beginning of April 2017 Staffordshire County Council, in conjunction with Newcastle Borough Council and the Forestry Commission, commissioned work to clear the waste from the site.
The instances we have seen in Staffordshire are not exclusive. This issue is affecting the whole country and I, along with the Fire Authority, have written to local MPs to express our concerns and belief that this problem needs to be raised with central government.
We have established a Strategic Leaders Group which includes the Service, Staffordshire County Council, Newcastle Borough Council (representing district and borough councils across the county), Staffordshire Police and Staffordshire’s Civil Contingencies Unit. The group’s aim is to oversee the work pushing for changes in the legislation governing these matters.
The legislation relating to waste sites must empower local authorities to take action against those that do not adhere to correct and safe processing and storage of waste. At this time the legislation requires some strengthening and doesn’t provide a strong enough deterrent.
Likewise where prosecutions have been bought about, perpetrators have not faced harsh enough penalties to prevent them reoffending or for their punishments to deter others.
What we have been able to achieve in Staffordshire is a multi-agency comprehensive and thorough approach to planning our response to any fires that result from these hazardous sites.
So while Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service, along with partner organisations, seek to press for further support from central government, we will continue to do everything possible within our power to minimise the risk of waste sites in Staffordshire.
For more information about Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service’s work in this area please contact Tim Hyde, Chair of the Staffordshire Strategic Agencies Group, on 01785 898509 or [email protected]
For more information, go to www.staffordshirefire.gov.uk