A large laboratory fire occurred during the annual shutdown, when there were very few people on campus. The chain of events which led to the fire was both unusual and unfortunate.
The building was last occupied on Thursday 22 December 2016. After Christmas, severe storms occurred. During these storms, high winds brought down many trees, causing damage to the electrical distribution network. A high voltage transmission tower close to the campus collapsed during the storms. As a result, the campus lost power at about 1:40am on Wednesday 28 December. The campus remained without power for four days.
At 10:30pm on Thursday 29 December, the fire alarms in the building activated and the fire brigade attended. The fire caused substantial damage to the laboratory and the entire level of the building (the upper level of a two-storey building) was affected by smoke and soot. The heat from the fire damaged the roof directly above, and this section will need to be replaced.
The seat of the fire was determined to be a set of fridges/freezers within the laboratory. It would appear that the loss of power led these units to warm up to ambient temperature, and that this caused either a stored chemical to become unstable and ignite, or a combination of stored chemicals to react with one another. A forensic investigation has been commissioned but the report has not yet been received.
Although some buildings on the campus were supplied by backup generators during the power outage, the building in question was not connected to backup power as it was not thought that it contained valuable materials stored in temperature controlled environments.
Following the fire, the University faced difficulties in obtaining access to the building, which contained many different types of chemicals and was still without power. The University needed to establish that the building was safe to enter from an air quality point of view, while at the same time ascertaining that the building was structurally sound following the fire. In addition, the building contained asbestos and the University needed to identify the locations of this material within the building, for the safety of those working on the clean-up of the site.
A firm of restoration specialists was brought in shortly after the fire to assist the University in recovering from this event. Many substantial logistical challenges needed to be overcome. The building remains without power as of early March; long after power was restored to the campus. This has meant that generators needed to be obtained, connected and fuelled. The building contained thousands of items, from glassware and notebooks to furniture and specialised scientific equipment. All of these items have been photographed, catalogued, boxed and taken to a factory offsite which has been leased for this purpose. Unfortunately, there was no vacant space on campus which could be used for this purpose. At this factory, the items will be cleaned and assessed for further repairs.
When the forensic investigation report has been received and reviewed, we hope to be able to provide some “lessons learned” to all university Members. Interestingly, by the time the fire occurred, some buildings on campus (but not the one in question) no longer had functioning fire alarms as their backup batteries had run flat. This raises the issue that, even where a fire is no more likely to occur in the absence of mains power, the ability to detect a fire may be severely compromised, leading to a situation in which a fire is significantly more established by the time it is detected.