The toxic chemical blaze which started in a West Footscray factory, in Melbourne's west, on August 30, and took firefighters 17 hours to bring under control, has provoked such widespread anger that the state government has been forced to intervene.
The thick black clouds of smoke which covered the area could be seen from Geelong.
The Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) said it had been fuelled by drums of acetone and scrap metal. Schools were forced to close, or keep children indoors. Firefighters were at great risk, given the exploding acetylene which is used in welding.
MFB reported that at its height more than 140 firefighters were engaged in fighting the fire, which was about 14,000 square metres in size.
On September 3, the Environment Protection Authority, Victoria, was still reminding people to protect their pets and themselves, by avoiding eating or being near any dead fish in Stony Creek and the upper parts of the bay. It also set up pumps to try and rid the creek of contaminated water.
The fire was still smouldering on September 4, with firefighters having to hose down hot spots.
The factory’s owner is reportedly being investigated by the Australian Taxation Office for “phoenix activity” — when a new company is created to continue the business of a company that has been deliberately liquidated to avoid paying its debts, including taxes, creditors and employee entitlements.
The MFB reported on September 1, that its specialist investigators had referred the fire to the Victorian Police “based on evidence which indicates that the cause of the fire may be suspicious”.
While an exclusion zone was put in placed in surrounding suburbs, including as far away as Port Melbourne, transport workers were still being sent to do deliveries
Furious residents attended an emergency meeting called by Maribyrnong Council on August 30.
A Yarraville resident said that the factories in the industrial precinct were a “time bomb waiting to happen”, according to the Maribyrnong Star Weekly. “This area of Brooklyn and Tottenham is a no man’s land – anything goes,” he said.
“These wool stores were built back in the 1950s. They have been sublet and there’s a whole lot of spurious items in there. We don’t know.”
After calls to audit the factories, the state government has sent WorkSafe inspectors to industrial sites in West Footscray and identified almost 70 dangerous goods breaches.
Former Greens MP Colleen Hartland said of the incident: “Just because we live in an industrial area doesn’t mean that our safety should be put at risk”.
The exact cause of the fire is yet to be determined.