Page last updated at 14:11 GMT, Wednesday, 17 June 2009 15:11 UK

Blast fears at chemical fire site


A huge plume of smoke has risen above the Skymark factory

About 180 people have been evacuated from their homes and five schools made to close by a fire at an industrial packaging site.

Up to 90 firefighters tackled the blaze at Skymark in Southern Avenue, Leominster, Herefordshire.

A cordon was set up around the fire which sent a plume of black smoke into the air. No casualties were reported.

Almost 100 children had to miss GCSE and A level exams at the schools which were closed by the incident.

Fire crews reported "minor explosions", but it was not known if they were caused by butane canisters, a fire service spokesman said.

He said the two-storey building also contained a large quantity of chemicals and solvents.

'Uncontrolled missile'

It is understood some 50,000 litres of chemicals together with a number of butane gas cylinders are at the site, which stores paints and plastics, on the outskirts of Leominster.

The chemical causing the most concern was a type of isocyanate, which can be toxic and is commonly used in vehicle paint and can cause asthma.

It is not yet known what started the fire.

A fire service spokesman said: "There were a number of butane gas cylinders in the premises and if they go off it is like an uncontrolled Exocet missile."

Fire (pic: Jim Melia)
The Met Office has advised the fire service about wind speed and direction

The service said the plume of black smoke carrying chemicals could be seen "many miles away".

Residents who were evacuated were taken to a refuge centre set up at Bridge Street Sports Centre.

The ambulance service said crews helped an elderly couple in wheelchairs and an elderly woman from their homes.

People immediately outside the exclusion zone were advised to stay indoors and close all windows and doors.

The Minster College, Leominster Infants, Leominster Junior, Westfield Special and The Priory Pupil Referral unit schools were closed.

Some medical appointments at Leominster Community Hospital have been postponed.

Trains were unable to call at Leominster railway station and because of the severity of the fire, and there was no replacement road transport.

'Considerable number'

Bus services have also been disrupted.

Supt Kevin Purcell, from West Mercia Police, said: "There's some monitoring equipment going in in terms of keeping an eye on what chemicals are being released and what damage, if any, they will do into the local environment.

"Public health are considering now in terms of the chemicals that were in the property that have been burnt and the issues around public health for that."

The A49 was shut between the north roundabout, by the Fina petrol station, and the Worcester Road roundabout.

The whole of Southern Avenue has been closed from the cemetery junction on the B4361 Hereford Road, through to Worcester Road roundabout.

Fire (pic: Jim Melia)
Many roads have been closed following the fire

Worcester Road in the town and Etnam Street to the South Street junction was also closed.

The fire service was called at about 0330 BST on Wednesday and between 80 and 90 firefighters from Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire were sent to the scene.

A "very considerable number" would be here all day on Wednesday and into the night, the fire service said.

It said the Environment Agency had been trying to prevent any spillage into nearby rivers and streams.

Jim Melia, who lives near the scene, said: "About five o'clock this morning we heard just the odd emergency sound of an ambulance or something and it happened a few times.

"I think they were just trying to wake people up and make them aware something was going on."

Ian Baker, Herefordshire Council's emergency planning officer, said residents who were evacuated from their homes had been helping give out refreshments and the community spirit was "absolutely fantastic".

The Met Office has been advising the fire service about wind speed and direction.

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