400,000 sq ft up in smoke

Published:  06 March, 2015

CASE STUDY: George Potter reports on the worst fire in 20 years in the European food processing industry.

The worst fire in the last 20 years in food processing plants in Europe totally destroyed the 400,000 square foot Campofrio ham and coldcuts plant in Burgos, Spain. The fire broke out at 06:45 the morning of Sunday, November 16th, due – according to Burgos fire brigade officers – to an electrical short circuit (the definitive cause is under investigation).

The fire was brought under control nearly 24 hours later, but continued to burn for several days in areas of difficult access to firefighters. After 11 days and nights, the fire was officially declared as totally extinguished.

The Campofrio plant was built in the mid 1990s and officially inaugurated in 1997.This facility was considered to be the most important of the company’s more than 20 installations throughout Spain (plus several other facilities in other European countries). A series of major modifications had been introduced in 2002. The plant was built of steel structure with sheet metal sandwich siding and a lightweight flat roof. Inside the plant hundreds of tonnes of pork were in various stages of elaboration, from hams to pork chops and other assorted products, as well as diverse machinery for processing and packaging and more tons of packaging materials – paper, cardboard, plastics and wood.

Due to the fact that when the plant was built the existing national and regional fire protection regulations for this industrial activity did not require automatic fire sprinklers, it only featured fire detection systems, fire hose stations, manual fire extinguishers and emergency lighting and signs. Thus the plant had been built in strict compliance with that legislation.

However, seven automatic sprinkler systems plus four gaseous extinguishing systems did offer partial protection to approximately 30,000 sq. ft. of specific areas, less than 10% of the total floor space of the plant. Also, the majority of the processing area inside the plant was in open space which facilitated the spread of the fire. The only significant structural divisions and separation elements in the plant were the walls between the processing areas and annexes (offices, cold storage facilities and similar areas). In the year 2003, new national building codes did require automatic sprinklers in numerous industrial sites built or substantially modified after the date of the codes’ publication, as well as fire retaining walls and similar fire resistant space divisions. The new legislation did not obligate retrofitting of improved measures into existing factories.

The city of Burgos is the capital of the province of Burgos in north central Spain, and is the home of 179,000 inhabitants, many of whom work directly or indirectly for some of the multinational firms that have manufacturing facilities in and around the city. According to some reports, a total of some 9,000 persons living in and around the city have been affected in some way by this fire, including the 1,100 employees of the plant itself.

The Burgos municipal fire brigade is a public service entity within the structure of the municipality. There are two additional full-time brigades in the province, and another 19 volunteer brigades distributed throughout the province. The Burgos city brigade operates out of one station with a total staffing of 103, including Chief, several sub-officers, fire prevention personnel and communications operators. The brigade runs the typical Spanish fire service shift structure; 24 hours on duty, 96 hours off, with an average of 18 firefighters, apparatus drivers and shift leaders on duty at any given time. The brigade has a mobile fleet of 15 vehicles including one 138 ft. telescopic/articulated aerial platform, two 100 ft. turntable ladders, four urban pumps including a ‘mini pump’ designed to access the narrow streets of the older downtown area, one heavy-duty tanker, a rescue van and several support vehicles.

The night of the Campofrio fire there were 17 on duty. The initial response as per brigade SOP for an industrial fire was one pump and the aerial platform, with a total of 10 firefighters. Due to the magnitude of the fire, the Incident Commander (IC), the senior responding leading firefighter, immediately requested additional resources, which mobilised one additional pump with five more firefighters. Another request for more resources mobilised numerous off-duty personnel who responded with the remaining two pumps, one turntable ladder, the tanker and several auxiliary vehicles.

Total on scene personnel during the initial hours of the fire was 44, including the brigade’s chief officer who assumed overall command of the incident. During the following hours, 14 more off-duty firefighters also responded, raising the total number of brigade personnel to 60.

Over the following days, every member of the brigade responded to the incident. Several volunteer brigades from surrounding villages responded as well, some to the scene and others to the fire station to assist in maintaining protection levels. The Spanish Military Emergency Unit (UME) dispatched material and personnel to Burgos during the initial days of the incident.

Although the plant employs just over 1,000 persons, only 20 were present on the low hours (weekend) shift. On arrival of the fire brigade, all employees had evacuated and were accounted for.

The intensity of the rapidly expanding fire made access to the interior impossible so that the initial fire attack was carried out in a defensive mode. This mode was maintained during the following days due to continual structural failure as the fire progressed through the building.

One specific operation was the protection of an anhydrous ammonia storage deposit adjacent to the plant, used as a refrigerant in the plant’s extensive cold storage facilities. Damage to this deposit could have provoked an escape of toxic vapours that would in turn have created a major hazmat situation, possibly endangering hundreds, possibly thousands of people living around the industrial park. During these first intensive hours of the incident, the city’s Municipal Emergency Plan was activated. In accordance with this Plan, a number of residents living close to the site were evacuated as a result of the intense, heavy smoke generated by the fire for a period of some 10 hours.

Only after several days of fighting the fire from exterior positions, the ruined structure was deemed to be in conditions that would allow firefighters to access by specific entry points in order to extinguish isolated spot fires and finally put the fire out.

Following the extinction of fire, the National Police’s scientific investigation team began investigations into the actual cause of the fire. In Spain, fire cause investigations are performed by the National Police Corps. No Spanish fire services have competencies in this activity, although some major fire services do have qualified personnel who assist the police investigators. Most major insurance companies also have investigators who normally go through the fire scene after the police have performed their work.

Lesson learned: internal emergency response plan

Campofrio had an internal emergency response plan that was implemented and activated on confirmation of the fire. All personnel were evacuated and accounted for, as nothing could be done to contain the fast-moving fire by intervention teams due mainly to the fact that few members of these emergency response teams were present at the time. Nonetheless, the plan did function according to its structure and procedures.

Lesson learned: automatic sprinklers

It appears that had the plant been wholly equipped with adequate automatic sprinklers, the fire could have been contained and the velocity of propagation significantly reduced. It is likely that the project for rebuilding the plant will include full automatic sprinkler coverage.

Lesson learned: Fire Service staffing

Spanish fire services are notoriously short-handed and the Burgos municipal fire service is no exception. On the one hand, the ratio of full-time public service firefighters to population in the entire country is 1:2,040, half the international recommendations of 1:1,000. There are approximately 23,000 public service firefighters in the numerous municipal, provincial and regional fires services, another 5,000 volunteers in the rural areas, 1,700 civil aviation airport fire fighters and about 1,000 industrial brigade fire fighters. The theoretical overall ratio now is 1:1,530, still far below the ratio of 1:1,000.

The problem in Spain is that most public fire services need five shifts in order to meet national labour annual work hours of 1,750. This means that a brigade with 100 firefighters, including senior officers, administrative staff, communications, etc. will quite likely have only 85 or so operational firefighters, divided by five shifts gives 17 firefighters, crew leaders, drivers and shift officers during any given day, and with no-one down for illness, vacations, etc. The same brigade doing a four shift schedule (as in the UK) would have 21 persons on duty.

Lesson learned: pre-emergency planning

The phrase ‘prepare for the unexpected’ could well apply to this incident. The Burgos fire brigade leaders in fact did know the plant and the general and specific hazards present. The brigade had participated in simulated emergency exercises as required in the plant’s emergency response plan. However, the magnitude of this particular fire overwhelmed the brigade’s capacity.

At the time of writing the investigation was still under way. Investigators face several important roadblocks, namely the massive destruction of structure, machinery and production. Although they can access the area where the fire apparently started, finding evidence and determining the exact cause will be a slow process.

This report was written during a period several days following the fire. The information was compiled from diverse sources including insurance entities, the Burgos municipal fire service and the European Fire Sprinkler Network.

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