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Toxic smoke fears linger

A ferocious chemical fire in Mitchell has been brought under control by fire fighters, after the blaze woke many North Canberra residents with a series of huge explosions and fireballs early this morning.

Firefighters are hopeful they will be able to extinguish the fire by tomorrow, but will keep the exclusion zone in place throughout the weekend, meaning Mitchell remains off limits.

Meanwhile, an afternoon change in direction of the wind meant they were urging residents of Campbell, Braddon, Downer, Dickson and Watson to stay indoors if possible, as at 4pm.

A large explosion occurred as recently as 1.25pm, and could be felt throughout Franklin. Fire crews have said flames could be seen up to 200m high at some stages as they continue to attack the blaze.

The fire caused emergency services to raise fears of toxic smoke plumes across the area. Fire crews are continuing to monitor the smoke for any toxic substances, which authorities say could have a similar effect to mustard gas.

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SMOKE PLUME: Wind to help dissipate smoke

The fire started at the Energy Services Invironmental factory in Dacre Street, Mitchell. The company works with oil from electricity transformers, which is stored on the site and contains the dangerous chemical PCB.

Emergency Services have now confirmed that the smoke is dissipating, and the exclusion zone has been reduced from 10km back to just the suburb of Mitchell.

Fire fighters have said that they have the fire under control and contained within the building.

ACT Fire Brigade chief officer Paul Swain said fire-fighters had made a concerted attack for about an hour from 11am, but this was not as successful as hoped.

"We are gearing up for another concerted attack in the next hour or so,'' he said about noon.

"We are 100 per cent confident that we have it contained,'' he said.

But he could not be sure how long it would take to get out. Fire fighters hoped to have it out in the "next couple of hours", but said it could take until tonight - or tomorrow at the latest.

While the wind was favourable in blowing smoke away from populated areas, it was making it harder to cover the fire in foam.

PHOTOS: How you captured the fire

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Authorities were checking weather forecasts every 10 to 15 minutes, so they were ready to respond to any change.

He said two people had been injured. A security guard had suffered minor smoke inhalation and another person had a diabetes-related incident.

A spokesman said at 1pm that no one had gone to hospital with any of the symptoms that would occur from coming into contact with the smoke plume.

"We do not expect this to change at this stage,'' he said.

"People who have concerns they may have come into contact with the product of the smoke plume and have any of the symptoms should seek medical attention at an emergency department or ring emergency triple zero 000 for life threatening cases."

Mr Swain said the operation was running well, "like any operation, there are still risks and hazards that we have to deal with".

There was significant damage to the factory, but no other properties had been damaged by the fire. However, some water used to fight it had leaked off the site and into nearby ponds.

He said it was being contained, and monitored.

The National Capital Authority has barricaded Sullivans Creek as a precautionary measure, because it flows into Lake Burley Griffin. It has also closed the lake for the day.

Video taken by Kresimir Rogic and uploaded to YouTube. Be aware of some bad language.

PHOTOS: Mitchell factory blaze

Authorities said the fire was still sending potentially toxic smoke over Mitchell.

Canberra Connect has received 2250 calls from the public about the Mitchell fire.

A Chief Minister and Cabinet Directorate spokesman said all government schools on the northside of Canberra, including Belconnen, Gungahlin and the Inner North, were closed.

"All public schools north of Lake Burly Griffin will be closed but staff will be on hand for supervision. The exclusion zone is just Mitchell,'' he said.

"Normal bus services will commence immediately - except school bus services which will resume this afternoon.''

Residents of Franklin, Crace, Harrison, Watson, Downer, Kaleen, Lyneham and Hackett had earlier been warned to stay indoors, close doors and windows and not use air conditioners or heaters, however that warning has now been lifted.

Between 100 and 200 people were evacuated to Dickson College.

The most recent atmospheric tests have confirmed no positive readings for the toxic substance phosgene, however, a spokesman said the smoke was "still potentially toxic". One test showed a very small amount of the toxin in the air, but the concentration was not considered dangerous.

Authorities earlier determined that a small amount of PCB at the site could cause phosgene in the smoke.

"Phosgene is known to cause irritation to skin and eyes, sore throat, nausea, headaches and dizziness, vomiting, chest pain and difficulty breathing," a spokesman said.

"The ACT Fire Brigade believe the risk to the community is low but continue to take all precautions."

Mr Swain said the Energy Services Invironmental factory recycled oil from electronic transformers, removing the dangerous chemical PCB.

"This premise was accredited in May. Our understanding is that they were performing exactly the role they were approved to perform," he said.


View Toxic factory blaze in a larger map

Fire-fighters have contained the blaze to the Dacre Street factory. They initially used water and foam, but explosions heard across North Canberra and fireballs forced fire-fighters to retreat about 2.30am and reassess how to tackle it. An ESA spokesman said the explosions were using up fuel.

"Every time there is an explosion, it is one less thing we have to worry about,'' he said.

Fire fighters resumed fighting the fire shortly after 4am, although there were another series of particularly large explosions around 5am. They shook houses in parts of Gungahlin.

Mr Swain said fire fighters temporarily pulled back from the fire for a period early this morning, but used the opportunity to gather resources so they could attack the fire again.

"When we have flames that are 200m high we have to withdraw,'' he said.

The explosions began about midnight and fireballs were seen to shoot high into the air, while thick black smoke was blown to the north east in a plume that stretched hundreds of metres into the air.

Energy Services Invironmental staff are working with fire-fighters, providing information about what is inside the 30m by 40m factory.

An ESA spokesman said the factory had drums of transformer oil and of sodium powder, which were believed to be causing the explosions.

That created fears of toxic smoke, leading to the evacuation of a number of Mitchell businesses and residents staying in tents at Exhibition Park.

There was a horse show on at Exhibition Park, and the fire meant many people and about 50 horses were taken to Dickson College. People began arriving there about 3.20am.

Nearby Bimberi Youth Detention Centre was not evacuated. Mr Swain said it was "well placed, because they don't have open windows or the same threats that other households have".

The fire at the Energy Services Invironmental factory along Dacre Street in Mitchell was reported just before midnight.

It quickly burned through the roof of the factory and was burning through oil stored in the building.

Homes in Franklin shook and windows rattled with some residents thinking Canberra was being bombed.

The fire lit up the suburb with flames leaping hundreds of metres in the air. A column of smoke from the blaze at Energy Services Invironmental, a chemical factory, was billowing toxic fumes up more than 800m in the air.

There are unconfirmed reports that there were about 400,000L of toxic chemicals in the building.

There are warnings that the toxic smoke can not necessarily be smelled.

The wind was blowing the smoke north east towards, Harrison, and Gungahlin.

The building is located in the suburb's newer industrial estate along Hoskins Street. Energy Services Invironmental works with oil from electricity transformers.

Nine fire pumpers, the Bronto aerial fire-fighting platform, HAZMAT, breathing apparatus units and command crews were all on the scene. Ambulance crews were also present as a precaution.

NSW fire-fighters were brought to the ACT as a back up in case they are needed for any other incidents.

An ESA spokesman asked people to stop calling the emergency number about the fire.

"People are urged not to ring 000 unless for a life threatening emergencies. All telephone inquiries should be made to Canberra Connect on 13 22 81,'' he said.

Emergency services will conduct a full review of the incident and the adequacy of their response.