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Lessons from the Weston Pier Fire

29th July 2008

Following the devastatingly destructive fire at Weston-super-Mare’s historic old pier this week, I wonder how many other owners and tenants of catering establishments and similar predominantly timber structured building are reviewing their fire prevention and protection needs.

The loss is all the more tragic in that the 104 year old pier had only recently undergone a £1millon refit- and we must assume also underwent a fire risk assessment in line with the current Regulatory Reform Order (Fire Safety).  As a popular tourist attraction the Weston’s Pier must have warranted special scrutiny to safeguard public safety. Mercifully no one was injured in the blaze that started around 7am and reduced the wooden pavilion to ashes in only a few hours. A fire at peak time on such a beautiful summer day may have had even more tragic consequences.

If early reports are correct the source of the blaze is attributed to the deep fat fryers in the kitchen areas but the rate of fire spread and its intensity gave the fire service little chance of saving the main building, a job already hampered by the limited land side access.

It would be interesting to establish if the refit included the installation of an automatic fire sprinkler system as you would anticipate they would have significantly reduced or at least slowed the fire spread. Sprinklers only activate by heat generated in the vicinity of the fire, spraying water or foam to suppress it. They have proved highly effective and are increasingly used to protect occupied buildings such as schools, hotels and public buildings

It is also not widely understood that most fire extinguishers are ineffective against cooking oil and fat fires. Indeed some extinguishers, like water and CO2 can actually aid the spread of fire due to the high pressure discharge. Dry powder and foam extinguishers are certainly effective against petroleum oils and gases but not cooking oils.

The only practical solution is to use a wet chemical fire extinguisher that is specifically formulated from a cocktail of potassium salts to tackle this type of fire. The wet chemical reagent reacts with the burning oils creating a soapy foam that covers, cools and smothers the fire. In the absence of a Wet Chemical extinguisher deploying a fire blanket over the blaze is arguably the next best option.

Irrespective of the presence of a Sprinkler system every commercial kitchen should include a Wet Chemical extinguisher in their fire protection arsenal. A bonus is that they are also effective on Class A fires involving combustible solids like paper and fabric although being more expensive you may opt to have a cheaper dry powder or water extinguisher as well. A 6litre Wet Chemical Fire Extinguisher is under £80 + VAT from www.fireandsafetycentre.co.uk. A relatively small investment given the potential damage a fire can inflict.

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