Arson police investigate cause of West Footscray factory fire
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Arson police investigate cause of West Footscray factory fire

Firefighters believe the cause of this week's massive factory fire in Melbourne's western suburbs is suspicious and have called in arson and explosives police to investigate.

Police have taken over the investigation into the fire after firefighters uncovered “sufficient evidence” to indicate the blaze may be suspicious.

Firefighters battled for 17 hours to bring the blaze under control on Thursday.

Firefighters battled for 17 hours to bring the blaze under control on Thursday.Credit:AAP

Metropolitan Fire Brigade chief Dan Stephens said the evidence firefighters had compiled since Thursday's inferno would be handed over to police – but warned its cause may never be discovered.

“The reality is, in something as complex and as large as that, we may never be able to determine the cause of the fire,” Mr Stephens said late on Saturday afternoon.

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“But what we believe is that there is sufficient evidence there that we consider that it does warrant further investigation now from [police].

Mr Stephens said the "sheer size and the scale" of the fire, as well as "access issues" had hampered the investigation.

The building size, structural issues, and its subsequent collapse "makes it very difficult for our fire investigators to go in and ... determine the origin of the fire".

MFB chief Dan Stephens at the scene of the West Footscray blaze.

MFB chief Dan Stephens at the scene of the West Footscray blaze.Credit:Joe Hinchliffe

“Incidents of this nature are very difficult to investigate,” he said.

The fire chief sympathised with locals angered by the clouds of toxic smoke that blanketed surrounding suburbs as well as the “chemical cocktail” which is believed to have flowed into waterways.

“I think I speak on behalf of the MFB when I say that the residents who’ve been affected by this incident are uppermost in our thoughts.”

Victoria Police said detectives from its Arson and Explosive Squad would investigate the blaze.

"At this stage we have not been able to analyse the area, as the scene has not been deemed safe," a police spokeswoman said.

At its peak 140 firefighters battled the blaze, which is not fully extinguished.

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"Firefighters have made great progress on the fire overnight and MFB presence at the scene has been scaled back further today," the MFB spokeswoman said.

"The fire is still smouldering and firefighters continue to tackle hotspots assisted by the use of thermal imaging technology."

On Thursday smoke from the fire spread across the western suburbs, causing 50 schools and child care centres to be closed and causing alarm among residents.

Residents expressed anger and frustration at a lack of information from authorities and concerns about health effects of the smoke during a community meeting on Thursday night.

The warehouse where the fire started is owned Danbol Pty Ltd, whose sole director and shareholder is Shepparton accountant Christopher James Baldwin.

Mr Baldwin said on Friday that he was co-operating with authorities in the investigation. They are trying to contact a prior tenant of the building.

Maribyrnong Council confirmed on Friday that it had recently inspected the property at the MFB's suggestion, but had found no cause for concern.

The Environment Protection Authority has warned that toxic waste from the fire could flow into Port Phillip Bay, saying it could take weeks or months for a creek polluted by run-off from firefighting efforts to return to normal.

Up to 100 dead fish have been found died on the banks of Stony Creek since the West Footscray fire.

Up to 100 dead fish have been found died on the banks of Stony Creek since the West Footscray fire. Credit:Jason South

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Dead fish, eels and birds have washed up along the banks of Stony Creek and the mouth of the Yarra River near Spotswood, Newport and Williamstown since the blaze.

Authorities have placed warning signs at fishing spots along Stony Creek after anglers continued to catch fish at sites including the Warmies at Newport, where the Yarra River meets Port Phillip Bay, on Friday. The EPA had reports that up to 100 fish had died in the creek since Thursday.

EPA inland water expert Paul Leahy warned that contaminated water from the fire could spread to beaches as far away as Brighton.

"We are looking at the north of Port Phillip Bay to see if there is any impact there, our modelling shows [the] most extreme case could be up to Brighton Beach," Dr Leahy said.

Vision from an EPA drone showed the contaminants had reached the mouth of the Yarra River.

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Beaches at Williamstown, Altona, Port Melbourne and St Kilda could also be affected.

By late Saturday, Melbourne Water had pumped close to 55 million litres of run-off from the fire out of Stony Creek and into chemical waste facilities and the Western Treatment Plant.

Barriers have been installed to try and stop the flow of chemicals and the water pumping is being followed by a surface skimmer for "scum".

On Saturday Dr Leahy said results from EPA testing of the creek had found detergents, volatile industrial solvents, ash and soot in the water.

The chemicals include fenols, poly aromatic hydrocarbons, xylene, benzene and ethylbenzene.

"The levels of chemicals are above recreational water quality guidelines," Dr Leahy said.

The EPA has warned people not to swim, fish or wash in Stony Creek and lower Yarra River, or let their dogs drink from or wade in the waterway.


Joe Hinchliffe reports breaking news for The Age.

Nicole Precel is a video journalist and reporter at The Age. She is also a documentary maker.

Anthony is a sport and general news reporter.