A Transnet warehouse was razed in a fire over the weekend. Black smoke billowing from the fire spread throughout the city on Friday and Saturday. Picture: Storm Report/Mark Philips
Durban – The fire hydrants at a South Durban warehouse that was razed at the weekend were apparently not being serviced regularly.

This allegation will form part of an investigation into what went wrong and how such a fire could be prevented in the future, deputy mayor Fawzia Peer told the Daily News.

Peer, who also heads up the city’s disaster management unit, visited the site where a massive fire broke out on Friday. The warehouse is owned by Transnet.

According to first responders who did not want to be named, the eThekwini Fire Department’s efforts to control the blaze were hampered by ineffective fire hydrants. Firefighters were forced to transport water in trucks to the scene.

Peer said it appeared that the fire hydrants on the premises “had no pressure”.

“(It) looks as though they were not being serviced to check the pressure. The owner is responsible for whatever takes place on their premises and the businesses. But the investigation has to happen into what caused the fire,” she said.

According to a source, subcontractors were welding on the roof when sparks blew on to wax in the warehouse. It is suspected that that is how the fire started. Black smoke clouds blew over most parts of the city and could be seen from as far afield as La Mercy.

In a statement issued on Friday, the eThekwini Municipality said preliminary reports from environment health practitioners indicate that the warehouse contains a large volume of wax, polypropylene (plastic) and lucerne.

The city had also advised those who came into contact with the smoke to stay indoors, close windows and doors and ensure air-conditioning systems were switched off.

Garrith Jamieson, Rescue Care spokesperson, said they treated four people for minor burns, smoke inhalation and dehydration.

On Sunday, fire teams managed to control the blaze. Speaking from the site on Sunday, Alfred Newman, eThekwini Fire Division commander, said they made significant progress and were able to contain the fire, which prevented it from spreading to other factories and warehouses nearby.

“We were able to knock down the fire and are actively dampening all the hot spots. By doing this, we were able to dramatically reduce the black smoke that was billowing from the fire. There is still lucerne burning in one of the areas, but we are dealing with it,” he said.

Desmond D’Sa, of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), said they planned to hold meetings with residents living in Glenwood, Umbilo and on the Bluff to follow up on any health complications experienced as a result of the smoke.

“We received quite a few calls from residents complaining of chest problems and coughing. We told them to consult their doctors. Once they have done that, they must attend one of our meetings and we will discuss what action will be taken. We will have lawyers present and will sue the company involved,” said D’Sa.

He lambasted the city for “underplaying the health consequences” from the smoke.

“There are no measures being taken by the city to develop safety measures in the south basin. This fire can be compared to an incident in 2007 where an Engen tanker burned for four days. Once again, residents are asking for the proposed emergency evacuation plan promised by the eThekwini Municipality for rollout during disasters such as (Friday’s) fire. The uncontrolled smoke and fire, like other similar potential disasters in the south Durban industrial basin, pose a serious risk to the health of people in the area, and the environment,” D’Sa stated.

Bobby Peek, of groundWork SA, an environmental care organisation, said for south Durbanites, the voluminous clouds of smoke billowing from the fire is a daily reality, although much of the pollution that came from oil refineries and other toxic industries in south Durban was invisible.

“This is extremely harmful to our health and well-being. For government officials to say that there is no evidence that the emissions are harmful, is irresponsible. Has any air pollution monitoring been done? Has there been any analysis of the soot that fell on residents and properties as far as Springfield? Has the exact contents of the warehouse been established? Has the water that ran off into the bay as a result of fighting the fire been tested, and has there been a spike in people reporting illnesses related to the fire and smoke in Durban? These are the responsible actions government should have undertaken,” Peek said.

Molatwane Likhethe, Transnet spokesperson, said the warehouse was a storage facility for goods set for various destinations. “Our emergency teams are working closely with the city’s emergency services to extinguish the fire. We have put together a team to investigate the cause and the cost of the damage. The cause of the fire is unknown and we do not want to speculate on the outcome of the investigation,” he said.

Daily News