The Engen oil refinery near Wentworth in Durban south had to be evacuated after a fire ripped through the crude oil distillation unit.
Engen spokesman Herb Payne said the fire started at about 11am yesterday and was brought under control within half an hour.
However, the fire caused a temporary halt of production at the 125 000 barrels-a-day refinery. The refinery supplies 25 percent of South Africa’s fuel.
Pupils at Fairvale Secondary School, directly opposite the refinery’s main entrance, were sent home early as a precaution.
A thick column of black smoke billowed from the north side of the refinery.
A team from eThekwini Metro’s Chemical Firefighting Unit were sent to the plant to help the refinery’s in-house firefighting team.
Metro police cordoned off sections of Tara Road to vehicles while anxious workers waited outside the refinery gate.
Wentworth residents said they had heard three sharp sirens, each five seconds long, alerting them that a fire had broken out in the refinery.
They waited anxiously yesterday afternoon for two sharp sirens to inform them that the fire had been contained.
“When I saw the smoke and heard the sirens, I thought: ‘Oh no, not again,’” said resident Eddie Ogle.
“Fortunately it was not a big one this time and it looks like everything will be okay.
“Many people in the |community are worried because there is a shut-down coming up which means (temporary) jobs.
“Hopefully this fire won’t affect the shut-down,” he said.
Engen’s scheduled maintenance shut-down of the plant is expected to take place over the next six weeks.
In 2008 the refinery was forced to shut down for more than two months after a fire broke out in a unit that feeds crude oil into the processing plant.
The repairs cost the company R50 million.
Payne said yesterday’s fire was minor in comparison because production of crude oil had been started up by late afternoon.
The two sirens, informing the community and Engen workers that the fire had been doused, went off at 3pm.