Video and photo gallery: Firefighters at fire hit station back in business, as it is revealed building did not have sprinklers fitted

Firefighters surveying the devastation after the fire at Downham Market fire station. Picture: Ian Burt Firefighters surveying the devastation after the fire at Downham Market fire station. Picture: Ian Burt

Wednesday, March 12, 2014
12:06 PM

Fire investigators are keeping an open mind over what caused a blaze which destroyed a fire station and a £300,000 appliance.

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The Downham Market fire station blaze. Picture by Kathy Mellish.The Downham Market fire station blaze. Picture by Kathy Mellish.

Retained firefighters were today back in business after their fire station burned down.

The Downham Market crew rushed to an early hours “shout” to find flames pouring out of the building.

Investigators are picking through the rubble to find the cause of the blaze, which destroyed a year-old fire engine with less than 10,000 miles on the clock and all of its equipment, worth an estimated £300,000.

Neighbours were awoken by loud bangs as pressurised air cyclinders on board the vehicle went up. Some of the tanks exploded with such force they landed in the next street.

The Downham Market station fire. Picture by Hayley ClarkeThe Downham Market station fire. Picture by Hayley Clarke

The alarm was raised at about 12.10am yesterday, when officers in the neighbouring police station smelled smoke. Eight fire crews from West Norfolk and neighbouring Cambridgeshire attended the fire, which appeared to have started in or near the fire appliance. The building did not have sprinklers fitted.

Kathy Mellish, a borough councillor for Downham Market, who lives opposite the fire station, was evacuated from her home at 12.15am. She said there were six explosions before the blaze was brought under control and she was able to return home, at about 2am.

“At 12.10am, something woke me up and the next explosion was almost immediately after, and I thought the police station was under attack,” she said. “I could not believe it when I opened the window and saw the fire station red raw alight. The bangs were phenomenal and frightening.”

Tony White, who lives in Wingfields, off London Road, said he was getting ready for bed at about 12.30am when he heard a number of explosions.

Firefighters surveying the devastation after the fire at Downham Market fire station. Picture: Ian BurtFirefighters surveying the devastation after the fire at Downham Market fire station. Picture: Ian Burt

“While I was in the house I heard at least four explosions and they echoed around like crazy and was sufficiently violent that the house shook,” he said. “My initial reaction was that it was embarrassing for the fire service.”

Roy Harold, Norfolk’s deputy chief fire officer, said the first to arrive at the scene could see that the fire was in the appliance bay, where the engine is kept.

“Until we get inside and do an investigation, it’s speculation other than to say the fire station’s burned down and the fire engine was in there when it burned down,” he added.

Mr Harold said a replacement fire engine was immediately sent to replace the appliance destroyed in the blaze, along with new suits for its retained crew, who also lost protective clothing and equipment in the fire.

Downham Market fire station pictured in 2013.Downham Market fire station pictured in 2013.

“They live and breathe the fire service, so it was gutting for them,” he added. “They’re really proud of their station. We have not lost fire cover. We have lost the fire station, but we did not lose fire cover.”

Mr Harold said the fire was only the second he had ever attended at a fire station. The first was a blaze at Orpington fire station, in London, 22 years earlier.

“The Fire Service College also lost its garage, spectacularly, a few years ago,” he added.

“So it does happen, regrettably. I suppose it’s on a par with the police station getting burgled.”

History of the fire station

The fire station at Ryston Close in Downham Market was opened on June 16, 2006, having moved from the Priory road site which had provided 70 years of service to the community.

During that time the town and local area had developed to a point where a larger modern station with better access was required.

The old fire station is a widely recognised landmark within and beyond Downham Market.

Converted from a row of workers’ cottages in 1938, it served as an auxiliary fire station until decommissioning in 2006.

A project is under way to turn the old fire station into a new heritage and learning centre for the town.

Additional funding is still needed before the project can go ahead, but an update on funding news is expected at the end of this month.

The current Downham fire building is a retained station with a crew consisting of one watch manager, two crew managers and eight firefighters.

The station has a very experienced crew with two 20-year plus personnel, three 10-year plus and three four-year plus.

Each year Downham Market compiles its station plan, which enables the station management team to ensure it’s well prepared to deal with any emergencies in the local and wider areas.

Watch manager Kim Scotney was one of the first members of the town’s 11-strong retained crew to arrive at the station, in Ryston Close.

“We were greeted by masses of smoke coming from the front of the station and a few flames,” he said. “We tried to enter the rear of the property to get some firefighting equipment but we couldn’t get in there.

“There’s a spare fire engine round the back but the keys were in a locker in the building, so everything was against us.”

Mr Scotney, 49, who lives on the nearby Clacklose Estate, works as a firefighter at RAF Lakenheath in his day job and has 28 years’ service. Like many of the crew, he lost personal effects in the blaze.

“I’ve lost a file I’ve had since I joined with old photos of me when I joined and that,” he said.

As the smoke began to clear, crew members hoped that the station’s long-service board, which bears the names of generations who have fought fires in and around Downham had survived the flames.

Do you want to pay tribute to the work the firefighters do in the Downham Market area? Contact Chris Bishop at chris.bishop@archant.co.uk

WHAT NEXT?

County councillors will now decide whether to replace the £1.5m building, which was opened in 2006. In the meantime, fire crews will operate from Downham police station.

South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss said: “The destruction of the fire station is of course a significant loss to the local community but fortunately there has been no loss of life or any injuries sustained. I do want to praise the fire service for their rapid response. The first call came in at 12.30am and by 12.50am planning was already under way for the replacement engine to be on site.”

Chief fire officer Nigel Williams said: “We are grateful to our colleagues at Norfolk Constabulary for the magnificent support they have offered overnight and today.

“In the future, we will be looking into the potential to sit down with colleagues with Norfolk Constabulary and discuss future arrangements which may be eligible for some sort of funding from central government.”

Dan Roper, Norfolk County Council’s cabinet member for public protection, said: “This event reminds us that nobody is immune when a fire breaks out. I am pleased we have been able to move quickly and provide immediate cover for the people of Downham Market. We need now to explore what options are available to us in the longer term.”

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