RAGING INFERNO: Trevor Stevens, eThekwini fire chief, looks back. Picture: Bongani Mbatha/African News Agency (ANA)
DURBAN - Everybody remembers where they were the day of Durban’s inferno. 

One year on, eThekwini Fire Department divisional commander Trevor Stevens recalls Durban’s massive fire and his pride at the team of firefighters who conquered the flames.

On March 24 last year, the biggest recorded building fire in the history of the city, and one of the biggest in the country, broke out in a Transnet storage warehouse in south Durban.

Trevor Stevens, eThekwini fire chief, looks back at how the Durban fire stopped the blaze. Video: Anelisa Kubheka
Transnet said the Board of Enquiry had not finalised the report on the incident.

“The problem was the wax,” said Stevens. “We had 8 000 tons of wax and once that wax was alight, it melted and ran like a river, spreading the fire.  Instead of the fire burning from one product to the next, the wax ran like a burning river and just set the whole section on fire.”

The huge cloud of smoke spread north as far as Ballito, dumping black soot across the city.

In an interview with The Independent on Saturday this week, Stevens said he had never been more proud of his brigade, which handled the fire with skill and tenacity.

RAGING INFERNO: Trevor Stevens, eThekwini fire chief, looks back. Picture: Bongani Mbatha/African News Agency (ANA)
“I called for every available vehicle and all available manpower, and that was very uncommon. It has never happened in the past,” he said.

Under normal circumstance, manpower and vehicle requests are escalated as the fire gets bigger, but the circumstances were anything but normal on Friday, March 24.

“Never before have we called out all the resources; we left one vehicle in the west and one in the south as well as one in north, but the rest of the entire brigade was there and we had about 150 staff out there.”

Standing in the station’s training room beside a large photograph of the fire, Stevens said their main challenge had been the size of the building and its contents.

“It’s 240 000m², it's like 36 soccer fields under one roof. We used many millions of litres of water over the three days putting out the fire. 

"If you have a building that big and a fire in the middle, you have to send people 300 metres into the fire zone,” said Stevens.

He said the only way to do this was with a breathing apparatus and if a firefighter walked 300m with that set on his back, dragging a hose and working hard, by the time they reached the fire their air supply would be close to running out. 

“Getting access to the fire itself was extremely difficult. At one stage we had two fire engines 200m into the fire and we had to call them out because they were getting smoked.”

He said the initial crew on the day started its shift at 11am. By six that night the crew could hardly stand up after working seven hours non-stop.

Another challenge the brigade faced was that there was no water supply.

Stevens said everything was done from tankers, with the nearest fire hydrant being half-a-kilometre away from the fire.

“So we had to shuttle water, we had to pump water for a long distance. We had about five water tankers and three private water tankers.”

Sections of the building near the fire contained copper and toxic chemicals, and they used lucerne to slow the spread of flames. He said if they hadn’t used lucerne, the fire would have gone past the point where they had placed the cattle feed to where there was more wax and plastics.

"We couldn’t risk it getting to the fertiliser; if it had we would have had to evacuate the entire area. So we had contingency plan to evacuate the area.”

The brigade’s manpower on day two, by which time the blaze was somewhat contained, was down to 25 from the 150 battling the fire on day one.

He said the fire covered an area of the warehouse equal to six soccer fields long and four soccer fields wide. “So we had an area of six soccer fields burning. In this situation, you simply can’t get to the fire, you can only fight the edges. Our attack was to simply cut it off because we didn’t have enough water and foam to extinguish it. So we cut it off where the lucerne was, saving half of the premises.”

Stevens said the fire was always used as an example of the biggest warehouse fire this country had seen, and the brigade had learnt some important lessons.

“We’ve changed some of our procedures as far as water tankers are concerned. We now have to rely more on the water tankers because of the water shortages. This means also we have to be more conservative with our water usage, so we carry a lot of water. We realise we can’t rely on the fixed systems in these factories.”

Preparations are being made for construction at the warehouse. In an e-mailed response yesterday, Transnet said it was in the planning phase of redeveloping the area.

“Activities on site entail clearing the debris and preparing the area for reconstruction. The Transnet Board of Enquiry has not finalised the report on the incident,” it read.