Article Archive
Dark Skies Over England
Explosion, Flames Destroy U.K. Fuel Storage Depot
Vol. 21 No. 1

The Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal (HOSL), locally known as the Buncefield oil terminal in Hemel Hempstead 25 miles North West of London is the fifth largest oil terminal in the U.K. The facility is jointly operated by the French oil giant Total and Texaco. BP, and the British Pipeline Agency (BPA), a joint venture between BP and Shell also have an interest in the site which is a key fuel distribution 'hub' for the major airports in and around London. Fuel is piped to Buncefield over a national network of fuel lines.

Built in 1968, the depot's 26 tanks can hold up to 20 million gallons of refined oil products. It accounts for about 5 per cent of the UK's total refined oil products throughput. Products stored on site include: Ultra Low Sulphur Diesel (ULSD), Unleaded Petrol, Super Unleaded Motor Spirit (SUMS), Kerosene, gas oil (for industrial and agricultural use) and aviation fuel. Approximately 400 road tankers are loaded each day on a 24-hour basis.


At 6:03 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 11, an explosion which measured 2.4 on the Richter scale occurred at the oil facility. Forty-three people in and around the facility were injured in the blast, two seriously.

Industrial buildings and homes surrounding the facility for many miles were destroyed or sustained significant blast damage. Twenty thousand workers were unable to enter their work places as police cordoned off a huge industrial estate surrounding the facility. Thousands of residents had to leave their homes and use temporary shelter.

The blast could be heard clearly up to 30 miles away and there are reports that people as far away as France were making calls into their local police departments enquiring about the reverberations. The blast unleashed 300 foot flames into the air and sent thick black smoke pouring across the town and beyond.

Cars using the M1 major motorway link to the London capital were re-routed and more than 70 schools were closed due to the blast and subsequent fire.

Heathrow Airport rationed fuel for airlines because its supplies were affected by the huge fire. Long haul aircraft were diverted to Stanstead to refuel before making the short journey to Heathrow.

The HSE has started a major inquiry into the cause of the explosion. Experts will be trying to ascertain what initiated such a devastating event. Initial thoughts are that it involved a huge build-up of a potentially explosive mixture of petroleum products and air. A mixture or vapor cloud of perhaps many tons would have had to have been at stochiometric concentrations (the perfect mixture of fuel and air) for it to have reached such an explosive potential. Petroleum vapors burn readily. However, it is extremely rare for such vapors to cause explosions due to poor mixing in ambient conditions.


Sixteen municipal brigades provided over 600 fire-fighters during the three and a half day fire fight. These primarily managed the incident through the Gold, Silver and Bronze Command and Control structure which is the norm in the UK. The personnel provided management of the logistical support using 20 of the recently acquired New Dimension, high volume pumps (HVPs) drafting water from the Grand Union Canal.

Over 30 kilometers (18 miles) of 6-inch high volume hose was laid, with 12 lines feeding the major monitors within the facility. A total of 26 fire trucks and 20 support vehicles attended the incident.

Gold command had delegated the resource management of personnel, equipment and fire fighting media to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Three industrial brigades from Total, BP and SembCorp provided industrial firefighters and fire officers to manage the specialized high volume flammable liquid firefighting monitors and ancillary front line fire-fighting equipment needed to tackle an incident of this scale. Others such as Exxon and Shell provided fire-fighting media.

Specialists from Williams Fire & Hazard Control and Resource Protection International also attended to advise on fire-fighting tactics and strategy.

Fire-fighting foam concentrate was sourced from industrial facilities through out the UK as well as manufacturers who were producing 'round the clock' to feed the fire-fighting efforts with essential supplies.


Fire fighting at the site was delayed until the U.K.'s Environmental Agency was comfortable that a strategy and system was in place for the recovery of all firewater runoff. This included the setting up of the logistics to manage the removal of large volumes of fire water off site to dikes which were not affected by the blaze.

At its height there were 20 tanks on fire, the largest being 145 feet in diameter, with multiple dike fires. Most dikes had multiple smaller tanks within them and measured hundreds of yards in depth and breadth. There were numerous three dimensional fires across the facility, some from pipe-racks which had split open in the blast and others on the import-export line flanges at the base of the burning tanks.

The industrial fire teams called to the incident had brought with them specialized equipment designed to meet the needs of large scale flammable liquid firefighting. It's fair to say that their skill, knowledge and their valiant efforts were invaluable in bringing this incident to a successful conclusion.

The industrial equipment mustered included:

  • 1 foam tender with 3,000 gallons AFFF
  • 1 F1 Foam Pod with 3,000 gallons FP70
  • 1 triple agent fire truck with 600 gallons AR AFFF and 1700 pounds dry chemical.
  • 1 Williams Patriot I Hydrochem monitor (truck mounted)
  • 2 Williams 6 Gun Hydrofoam monitor & ancillary equipment
  • 1 Williams Patriot II Hydrochem monitor
  • 1 3,300 pounds of dry chemical trailer
  • 1 600 pounds of dry chemical trailer
  • 3 1,200 gpm Angus Titan monitors
  • 1 1,200 gpm oscillating monitor
  • 1 equipment pod

Numerous MEX dike pourers, a full communication system, gas detection monitors and various 4 x 4 vehicles.
Approximately 10,000 gallons of water per minute were being pumped to the scene using HVPs with some four million gallons used over the duration. Current estimates are that over 200,000 plus gallons of foam concentrate were used fighting the fire and in maintaining vapor suppression on the remaining un-burnt fuel.

There were successes and failures fighting the fire with tanks being successfully extinguished and on occasion others becoming involved again due to wind shift, flame envelope impingement and logistical issues.

During the 3? day fire-fight firefighters dealt with 20 tank fires, six full surface dike fires and numerous three dimensional flammable liquid fires. Those involved can be truly proud of their actions. All have many years of full time industrial fire experience and have been trained at industrial fire schools in the UK. Some have attended Texas Engineering Extension Service or the Les Williams Flammable Liquid Workshops in Beaumont, TX.

The Hertfordshire municipal chief fire officer admitted Hertfordshire fire and rescue service had not been trained to tackle such a large blaze, and all previous training had been designed to cope with one tank. The simultaneous burning of 20 tanks was uncharted territory for ALL the firefighters who attended this event.

Kevin Westwood, (Joint Oil and Industry Fire Forum secretary, SembCorp Senior Fire Engineer and Deputy Fire Chief), said the following about the fire:

"This incident has proven that large volume pumping and delivery equipment together with highly trained industrial fire teams are essential in the successful mitigation of large scale flammable liquid fires. The industrial sector have made a real difference through investment in appliances, equipment and training to ensure that its emergency responders are fully prepared to meet these challenges. The joined up efforts of the municipal and industrial fire services as well as the voluntary organizations assisting in the background support functions have ensured that the largest peacetime fire in Europe was managed successfully with no injuries to personnel. All who participated should be rightfully proud of their valuable contribution."


Clearly there will be lessons learned for all who attended this event; however, it is too soon to cover this in any detail. The fire teams attending the incident will need to be thoroughly debriefed on the event and examine performance around logistics, command and control, fire-fighting techniques, manpower and equipment resources. The government may wish to review its national strategy for handling major industrial events as they have done so effectively with the New Dimension requirement for decontamination, CBRN preparedness and HVPs.


Through the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) U.K. legislators have begun an investigation into the fire. Recent reports indicate that the British government is drawing up proposals to reduce the dangers from large industrial sites in the wake of the recent massive fire at an oil terminal. The likelihood of such a huge blast was not incorporated in to the HSE's "worst case" preparation for the site. The inquiry results could lead to proposals for stricter regulation of petroleum storage sites or chemical plants. The proposals may well include land use planning "prohibition zones" around industrial sites that would have to be free of any new or existing buildings in case of an explosion or fire.

Other recent large scale incidents to have occurred in Europe:

  • May 13, 2000 - NETHERLANDS - An explosion at S.E. Fireworks in Enschede kills 20 people and injures about 1,000 as a fireball rips through the town, leveling more than 400 homes.
  • Aug 9, 2001 - U.K. - Three people die after an explosion at one of Europe's largest gas-fired power stations at Teesside, northern England. The 1,875 megawatt plant was operated by U.S. energy group Enron.
  • Sept 21, 2001 - FRANCE - An explosion at a fertilizer factory in Toulouse run by AZF, a division of TotalFinaElf, kills 30 and injures 2,000 in surrounding areas.
  • Oct 22, 2002 - BELGIUM - At least two people die and 26 are injured when an explosion rocks a coke plant run by steelmaker Arcelor near the eastern town of Liege.
  • May 11, 2004 - U.K. - Nine people die in an explosion which flattens a plastics factory in the Scottish city of Glasgow. More than 40 are injured. ICL Plastics and Stockline Plastics were in charge of the factory.
  • July 30, 2004 - BELGIUM - At least 15 people are killed and more than 100 injured when an explosion rips through the underground pipeline in the industrial zone of Ghislenghien, 40 km (25 miles) southwest of Brussels. o
    In February 2006 Westwood (C.Eng, B.Eng Hons, MIFireE, MEI) will be taking up a new appointment as group fire adviser for BP PLC, replacing Richard Coates.

P: (979) 690-7559
F: (979) 690-7562

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