'We'll be here for days': Factory blaze one of city's biggest in decades
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'We'll be here for days': Factory blaze one of city's biggest in decades

A factory fire that has caused toxic smoke to billow across Melbourne's western suburbs is one of the biggest blazes the city has seen since the Coode Island disaster of the early 1990s, authorities say.

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Speaking near the scene of the West Footscray blaze, Metropolitan Fire Brigade acting chief fire officer Greg Leach said it was one of the city's biggest fires in decades.

“Many of you will recall some of the fires we’ve had in the past … [including] Coode Island,” he said.

“This is certainly one of the biggest fire's we’ve seen in Melbourne for a long time.”

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A fire and explosion at the Coode Island chemical storage facility in Melbourne's western suburbs in 1991 caused 8.5 million litres of chemicals including benzene to be burned, creating a toxic cloud over nearby suburbs.

More than 50 schools and child care centres were closed on Thursday due to acrid smoke from the West Footscray blaze. Authorities expanded warnings over the course of the day as the smoke drifted further across Melbourne's western suburbs.

Contained but not under control

The fire, which has been burning since 5am, has been contained but is not yet under control.

“We will be here well into the night," Mr Leach said. “We will be here for many days cleaning up the site and making sure the fire is completely blacked out."

Students from Kingsville Primary school were taken home after the school was closed due to the fire.

Students from Kingsville Primary school were taken home after the school was closed due to the fire.

Photo: Jason South

Mr Leach said it was possible some fumes from asbestos sheeting in the warehouse’s roof could have drifted in the air over Melbourne’s suburbs.

“We think the heat of the combustion has been such that most of the risk has been eliminated,” he said.

“Because if the intensity of the fire, much of that asbestos is going to have been consumed by the fire in the early stages.”

Mr Leach said firefighters initially had difficulty getting into the area to tackle the blaze and only started to have an impact on extinguishing it in the early afternoon.

He said "hot spots" were still burning in the centre of the site where a 120 x 70 metre warehouse once stood.

Mr Leach said it was hoped the fire would be brought under control on Thursday afternoon and that it was not likely to grow or spread.

“We’ll be here for many days cleaning up the site, until the fire is completely blacked out,” he said.

Mr Leach said firefighters would continue their efforts well into the night, blasting the blaze with water and foam.

Smoke from the factory fire in West Footscray continued to drift across the city's western suburbs on Thursday afternoon.

Smoke from the factory fire in West Footscray continued to drift across the city's western suburbs on Thursday afternoon.

Photo: Eddie Jim

Firefighters were still hopeful they could bring the fire ‘under control’ this afternoon, MFB Acting Deputy Chief Officer Ken Brown said, which would also reduce the smoke, but Mr Brown warned it was unlikely the fire would be completely extinguished until Friday.

Authorities extended a "Watch and Act" warning for residents to include Altona, Newport, Port Melbourne, Seaholme, Seddon and Williamstown.

An earlier alert was also issued for Altona East, Altona Gate, Altona North, Brooklyn, Footscray, Kingsville, South Kingsville, Spotswood, Sunshine, Tottenham, West Footscray, Williamstown North and Yarraville.

Anyone within the vicinity of the fire or the smoke plume is urged to shelter indoors.

Mr Brown confirmed the smoke was toxic.

'Toxic' plume

"I’ll reinforce that all smoke is toxic, and if people are inside the plume they shouldn’t be there, they should avoid it at all costs," he said.

"We are working with the EPA and are looking at the monitoring stations. We've also got our scientific officers and hazmat technicians going around, with crews visiting schools and taking readings.

"We've had no spike outside the area that we are concerned about at the moment but with the weather moving in and changing we've got to start looking at a strategy to minimise as much smoke impact on the community over the next couple of hours."

The MFB were warning those in the area that they should expect to smell acrid smoke that may smell like nail polish as the afternoon showers brought the smoke down.

Mr Brown said particles other than asbestos in the smoke were more of a concern.

"It's not the asbestos particles, it's the particles of dust that sit in there, what we call PM2.5 particle matter. That's the products of combustion that are actually burning in the cloud," he said.

Mr Brown  earlier told ABC Radio that the structure was made of asbestos.

"Very early, we identified the asbestos and put asbestos protocols in and we're keeping it as wet as we can in the area to minimise any exposure risk."

He said the building's owner and occupier were both working with authorities to determine exactly what was inside.

On radio station 3AW Mr Brown had said "there is obviously oxyacetylene and acetone, and other goods we are still trying to identify".

"It's causing us grief with the explosions, which we are not happy about," he said.

The perimeter of the fire has now been brought under control, but a large fire is still burning in the centre. An aerial appliance will spray foam over the site this afternoon, and firefighters expect to be there overnight.

Smoke has been pouring out of the burning factory for hours.

Smoke has been pouring out of the burning factory for hours.

Photo: Jason South

'It's a big one': Schools, childcare centres closed

At least 27 primary schools and another 27 early childhood centres were closed, while other schools across the western suburbs kept children indoors.

"As a precautionary measure, the Department of Education is conducting an orderly closure of 13 government schools and 27 early childhood centres in the area directly impacted by the West Footscray fire," a spokesman said.

"We understand a further 14 Catholic schools are also closing. We have asked parents to pick up their children from these sites if possible. These schools and centres will remain open for children whose parents are unable to pick them up."

The department expected the schools would open on Friday as normal.

"Melbourne Fire Brigade have advised they expect to have the fire under control by the end of today, as such we anticipate all affected schools will be able to operate as normal tomorrow."

Premier Daniel Andrews tweeted that the "EPA attended the scene as soon as requested and will remain on site as long as required".

He also thanked the 145 firefighters on the scene and advised residents to heed advice and stay indoors.

West Footscray resident Kerry Bellis, who runs her family daycare service on Indwe Street, around the corner from the Paramount Road blaze, said parents had agreed with her decision to close.

Fire crews battle to control a blaze at a factory in West Footscray, Melbourne.

Fire crews battle to control a blaze at a factory in West Footscray, Melbourne.

Photo: AAP/David Crosling

"You can smell [the smoke], you can see it quite clearly. I've decided to go away for the day because my son has asthma and it's best to get him away from it."

Meanwhile, residents at Royal Freemasons Aged Care Footscray were told to stay indoors and management cancelled all outings and outdoor exercise classes.

At Doutta Galla Aged Services in Yarraville, residents were also staying inside and all windows and doors were closed. Management confirmed they would send an email to families assuring them of residents' safety.

And Uniting AgeWell on Geelong Road, Kingsville, was also keeping residents indoors and conducting welfare checks on clients who lived nearby. Spokesperson Charisse Ede said a plan was in place in case emergency services told them to evacuate.

Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp told radio station 3AW said the site had acetone, aerosol cans and oxygen cylinders which had exploded throughout Thursday morning.

"At this stage we don't believe [evacuation] will be needed in that immediate area, the plume is up and the smoke is blowing south. As part of a checklist in relation to think through what we plan... we certainly have to look at evacuation, but again no definite plans around that," he said.

The fire has been categorised as an eighth alarm, which is about the same size as the fire at the Coolaroo recycling plant last year.

Melbourne Water has also warned that runoff from the fire has entered local waterways such as Stoney Creek, which could include chemicals and firefighting foam residue. The public is advised to stay clear.

Smoke billows from a West Footscray factory, seen from Kingsville.

Smoke billows from a West Footscray factory, seen from Kingsville.

Photo: Benjamin Millar
Fire crews battle to control a blaze at a factory in West Footscray, Melbourne.

Fire crews battle to control a blaze at a factory in West Footscray, Melbourne.

Photo: David Crosling/AAP

'I woke up to a popping noise'

Witnesses have revealed they woke to 'popping noises' and views from their windows of smoke and flames.

One caller to 3AW said the sound was like "rolling thunder with explosions in between".

Brooklyn resident Toby Bell told The Age he woke to the sound of small explosions.

"I woke up to a popping noise. I initially thought it was gunshots or something like that. So I went outside and could see a lot of red haze [in the] sky, so I jumped in the car and followed the noises and they led me right to the factory," he said.

"I then watched up to at least 15 fire trucks race to the location. When I left and went home I could still hear emergency services racing there."

David McKelson, who owns Pro Dog Daycare on Paramount Road, said he would not be opening on Thursday given the "constant" smoke.

"The smoke is so thick and I was there for about 15 minutes, and you can already hear it in my voice. I closed the business for the day, my concern is that the smoke could be toxic," he said.

The South Kingsville resident said the smoke was also floating over his house.

"The amount of smoke coming out the top of the sheds, I've never seen anything like it. It's been constant since I've been up at 6.30am."

Paramount Road, between Geelong and McDonald roads, remains blocked off.

Simone is a breaking news reporter for The Age. Most recently she covered breaking news for The Australian in Melbourne.

Anna is a breaking and general news reporter at The Age.