500 flee Takaka fire
WEDNESDAY, 22 JUNE 2005
By HELEN MURDOCH and ELEANOR WILSON
Takaka, in Golden Bay, will count the cost today of a spectacular blaze that destroyed the town's dairy factory, its biggest employer.
The fire broke out at the Fonterra factory about 5pm and flames soon engulfed large parts of the building. Firefighters spent several hours battling huge flames as thick, black smoke, fed by polystyrene in the building's construction, billowed from the rapidly disintegrating factory. The casein and milk products factory, which employs about 100 people, is the backbone of the town's economy.
Spectators said they could feel the heat from the fire from 100m and could see corrugated iron peeling off the extensive factory buildings.
At least 500 residents were evacuated last night after the fire threatened to ignite dangerous chemicals at the factory site. The Nelson Bays police area commander, Inspector Brian McGurk, said the town was evacuated because of the "potential for poisonous gases to be released" ...
They were told to leave the town because of concerns about silos at the factory and combustible plastic material.
"It's a very spectacular blaze. I haven't seen one like this for a long, long time. Huge flames," McGurk said.
No-one was hurt, although Nelson Hospital prepared for casualties.
Residents had been moved to Motupipi School, where Victim Support and welfare agencies were on standby. With residents evacuated, police were securing the town and had closed roads at Motupipi and Waitapu, he said. Officers from Nelson, Motueka, Richmond and Takaka had formed a team of about 22 to secure the town.
"It looks like we are going to be here all night," he said.
Motupipi School teacher Jeanine Taylor said up to 300 people had arrived at the school after being evacuated, but they were all found alternative accommodation outside the town and no-one had to spend the night at the school. She and other volunteers were offering hot drinks and food to everyone who arrived and organising where they would stay for the night. "It's been incredible, the public support. People offered to bring down food and blankets." Offers of accommodation had come from Pohara Marae, a caravan park in Pohara, as well as residents. Taylor, who lives outside Takaka, was one of the first to hear about the fire after police phoned her and asked her to open up the school. "I got the call from the police to say could I come and open up the school," she said.
"It's amazing how calm people were." Fisherman Ricky King, evacuated from his home in Motupipi Street, went to look at the fire and said the heat could be felt from a distance. He was evacuated to Motupipi School, but stayed last night at a friend's caravan outside the town. "Everybody was surprised," he said. "The whole of Takaka was evacuated."
A St John Ambulance volunteer, Walter Demaap, said the town would be devastated by the fire. "The factory is very important to the local economy."
Takaka resident Alan Swafford went to his bach 12km from the town after the order to evacuate. Swafford, who is retired and lives in Commercial Street, said the fire looked as though it would destroy the factory. "There were huge flames as tall as the building." He said he felt sad at the loss of the plant, believed to be more than 100 years old. "It's the major industry in Golden Bay," he said. "It's a major fire. I doubt whether there'll be anything left."
They were told to leave the town because of concerns about silos at the factory and combustible plastic material. "It was a very effective operation," said Swafford of the evacuation. "It was very well organised. I was surprised how many people came out with reflective jackets on. We're fortunate we have a bach out on Golden Bay."
A Fonterra spokesman said a skeleton maintenance staff would be at the factory at this time of year, the off-season for milking.