The triple-zero call came in just after 5am – a report of a large fire at a wood pallet factory in an industrial estate in West Footscray. Local fire crews knew the complex from past call-outs – it was a sprawling, 1980s warehouse that backed onto a nature reserve along a dead-end access road.
The trucks were on the scene within minutes and they found a thick black plume of smoke pouring from inside the building. But this was no pallet fire. And behind the warehouse, Stony Creek itself was burning.
“We didn’t know what was in there, what we were fighting,” says Leading Firefighter Kat Dunell. “We saw a running, liquid fire heading down to the creek so the creek was on fire as well. Crazy. You just didn’t know what to look at. I’d never seen anything like it before.”
It was Thursday August 30 last year, and alarms were clanging in station houses across the city, drawing hundreds of firefighters to battle what became the worst industrial blaze in Victoria in decades.
Only later did they learn that the pallet business had closed up shop and the new tenant, Graham Leslie White, had secretly packed the building with steel drums filled with millions of litres of toxic and highly-flammable chemicals.
Firefighters are trained to expect the worst. But White and his associates in an illicit waste dumping syndicate had created something new — a toxic bomb the size of a football oval concealed inside a suburban warehouse. The cause of the spark that ignited it is still unknown.
With the fire now more than a year in the past, emergency service personnel are still battling distressing symptoms from illnesses that defy diagnosis. And hanging over all the men and women who served at West Footscray is a question that no one can answer: what are the long-term effects of exposure to a chemical cocktail that nobody has yet been able to identify? And will they ever recover their health?
‘It felt like it was burning you.’
“The first thing I remember is the heat through the windshield of the fire truck. There was a laneway between two factories and as the driver turned in I remember the heat that hit us – it was extreme,” Leading Firefighter Jason Dale, the officer-in-charge of Ladder Platform 35, told The Age as part of a series of interviews with firefighters.
Dale was working night shift early that Thursday morning and was on the scene within the first hour.
“It only amplified when the explosions happened. It felt like it was burning you: flames and explosions 40 to 50 metres into the sky; 44-gallon drums exploding like missiles, like meteors, over the top of us. Some explosions rocked the whole concrete pad. They just rocked you.”
The Metropolitan Fire Brigade’s commanders declared West Footscray an eight-alarm fire — the highest level of emergency. The toxic plume that emerged forced the closure of schools and businesses. And residents, some as close as 500 metres to the “hot zone”, were warned to remain indoors with their windows closed as health authorities came to realise the scale of the danger.
But in those first hours, the risks were poorly understood.
One firefighter, who was running out water hoses when part of the warehouse later collapsed, saw a thick sludge snaking its way through the fire from the now-exposed barrels. “I could feel my skin burning under my helmet, breathing apparatus and gloves. When I took my gear off later the fumes had given me like a sunburn,” said the man who did not want to be named.
Nearly five hours of blasting the fire with water made no difference to its ferocity.
The MFB’s night shift, which included Dunell and Dale, were relieved at 10am and returned to their respective station houses to decontaminate. Both say they felt they could not get clean, no matter how they tried. “I had a smell on me, a metallic sort of smell, and it was in my mouth as well,” Dale says. “I was brushing my teeth constantly and washing constantly to try and just have some normality.”
Qualified firefighter Adrian Lovelace, who’d also rostered off and returned to his home only three kilometres away, watched the fire from his backyard. The taste in his mouth, which he still gets, was like “licking a coin,” he says.
That night, all three of them would be back on duty.
An inversion event
Large fires often create their own weather conditions through the scale and intensity of the flames. On the first day, the enormous heat from the burning chemicals produced a vacuum effect, sucking fresh air from ground level and funnelling it hundreds of metres into the air.
This super-heated air punched through the air of lower temperature — known as the inversion layer — and helped push the toxic plume above and away from the fire itself, assisted by a breeze blowing south-west towards Geelong. The effect helped minimise the spread of contaminated fallout for some of those stationed around the fire zone.
But as the night shift returned to duty on Thursday evening, the conditions turned against them. A cooler weather system pushed the inversion layer lower, trapping the smoke and forcing it downwards. Next morning, a light rain began to fall.
The effect has been described as putting a lid on a boiling pot or slamming the flue shut on a roaring fireplace. The smoke and contaminants that had been rising into the atmosphere turned and started plummeting once again to earth.
“There was no fresh air being drawn in by that point, the weather conditions were just pushing it all back down on top of us,” Lovelace says.
“When the smoke layer bottomed, you couldn’t get far enough away,” says Dunell.
Another firefighter was working on a pumping relay more than a 100 metres from the fire when the change came through his sector: “I was supposed to be in a safe zone. All of a sudden there was a chemical smell. It was putrid.” Three weeks later he got pneumonia.
Even MFB communications officers in a command bus a kilometre away reported experiencing a similar taste. Some had spontaneous nosebleeds in the weeks that followed. In the changed conditions, a support station set up in a supposed “cold zone” away from the fire inadvertently served contaminated coffee and pizza to weary firefighters. Exhausted crew slept in trucks that were later declared too hazardous to enter before they could be used again.
“There were no safe zones, no cold zones on that job,” says one senior firefighter. In total, more than 750 MFB personnel fought the West Footscray blaze for 16 days, working in eight to 12-hour shifts.
Within hours of their first exposure some had already begun to experience illness. For others it took weeks or even months for symptoms to appear.
It’s late October 2019, 13 months since the blaze, and 20 firefighters from stations across the city are packed into a conference room in Fitzroy. The forum has been organised by the hard-nosed United Firefighters’ Union so injured members can describe their symptoms to Dr Andrew Jeremijenko, an occupational and environmental medicine specialist. The Age was invited to observe on the condition that no names were published.
The symptoms are disparate, puzzling and extreme: breathing problems, constant headaches, dizziness, vertigo, fainting, memory loss, extreme insomnia or fatigue, pneumonia, coughing up blood. One firefighter recounted having up to six nosebleeds a day.
Documents obtained by The Age show that more than 100 potential chemical exposure-related injuries have been reported to the fire brigade since the event. More than 30 firefighters are estimated to still be ill.
In the meeting, a veteran officer introduced himself to the group: “I’ve been a firefighter for 43 years and that was the worst chemical fire I have ever been to,” he said, describing how afterwards his tear ducts became infected and for two weeks he could not stop them weeping. The condition came back six months later.
Another man around the table has a hard, wet cough that won’t go away.
Many have come, they say, because they can’t get answers from general practitioners, neurologists or other medical experts. The diagnoses ranged from “unknown” to “chemical meningitis” to patronising references to “psychological” problems.
We tend to protect our families so they’re not worrying. But that’s when I knew I had to talk and get help,
The anger in the room is palpable. The West Footscray stockpile is referred to as a “dirty bomb” and the men who built it as “rats”. Questions are asked about why White and his associates have not been charged with criminal offences – have not been held to account.
Later, some of those present agree to be interviewed on-the-record because they want the public to know what happened at West Footscray – to put names and faces to the cost to them and their loved ones.
Piercing headaches every day
Adrian Lovelace was plagued by a sinus infection so serious it required an operation. “My nostrils were sore — like a blowtorch up my nose.” He has also battled constant fatigue that has made his job impossible. At one point he was sleeping up to 16 hours a day with a nap in between.
“I was so fatigued that I was struggling to write a full sentence. I’ve had to stop in the middle, either collect my thoughts or go back and look at the sentence again to try to put down a few more words.”
“I’ve been to countless medical appointments to try to get everything back on track — neurologists, sleep specialists, ear, nose and throat specialists, optometrists, neuro-psychologists,” he said. “Without knowing what we were exposed to it’s hard to know what effects it will have.”
Jason Dale still suffers from piercing headaches every day. In the months after the fire, he blacked out and spontaneously vomited.
“I was playing Duplo with my son, he was two at a time, and just vomited. Light headedness and sort of passing out, hitting the ground and not knowing where I was happened on numerous occasions,” he said. “I had to talk to my family, tell them how I was travelling. We tend to protect our families so they’re not worrying. But that’s when I knew I had to talk and get help.”
The MFB, for its part, was caught on the back foot by the reports of illnesses. While it offers “free health screening and check-ups” through its internal Brigade Medical Service, senior sources told The Age that the MFB had no monitoring system for tracking and co-ordinating a response to the post-West Footscray injuries.
“The health and safety of our firefighters and the community is our highest priority and we have rigorous systems in place to protect and support our people,” a MFB spokeswoman said.
Many of those in the meeting described being surprised to learn in the weeks and months after the fire that others had also been sick. “This is the first time they have all been in the same room,” union secretary Peter Marshall said. “Everyone until now has been dealt with in isolation.”
“People are suffering enormous anxiety, and their families, over just not knowing what they’ve got.”
Dr Jeremijenko, the medical expert brought in by the union, told the firefighters there were two main problems in making firm diagnoses after an incident like West Footscray. The first is that tests can typically only detect toxins shortly after exposure. Most of the firefighters had not sought medical help in time because their symptoms did not develop until days or weeks later.
The second problem – which is particularly relevant for potential future medical care – is that it remains a mystery what chemicals were inside the thousands of barrels in that factory.
The union has spent months attempting to compile a list. The information they are using has been cobbled together from WorkSafe’s tests on barrels found at one of the 15 other chemical stockpiles linked to Graham White and his associates in the illicit dumping syndicate.
But this could only be a partial, speculative list because it doesn’t describe what they were directly exposed to or how those chemicals may have mixed in dangerous new combinations.
The EPA has also stymied attempts to access more than 5000 pages of documents held by the agency relating to the health and environmental impacts of the West Footscray fire.
In October, after five months of reviewing its files, the agency released just 32 pages of material to The Age through freedom of information. Among it was water testing results from Stony Creek, taken in the weeks after fire that showed the presence of more than 25 toxic contaminants in nearby waterways.
However, the EPA refused to disclose any test results from the West Footscray site itself or information about the fire’s health and environmental consequences, in part, because of the excessive bureaucratic burden of providing the materials, unnamed “public interest factors” and because the “documents contain the names of EPA Officers”.
Complicating matters is the fact that the fire and the dumping operation by White are under investigation by the Coroner, Victoria Police, MFB, EPA and WorkSafe.
A potential breakthrough came in late October when the EPA and WorkSafe announced the discovery — more than a year after the fire — of the presence of up to 10 million litres of chemicals buried in the rubble of the West Footscray site. While some of the barrels had been tested, the EPA refused to turn over the results when requested by the union.
“EPA remains committed to continuing to share information regarding the site provided it is in accordance with statutory obligations and does not impact any legal action against the duty holder,” the agency said after The Age published a story about the dispute.
By that time, the EPA and WorkSafe had been in possession of the test results for nearly six weeks. They had already been given to the owner of the property, who is being held financially responsible for the clean-up.
Amid mounting pressure, WorkSafe turned over a copy of the report to MFB command but demanded it be kept confidential. Late last week, the safety regulator relented, allowing the information to be shared with MFB health and safety officers.
“MFB is now making the relevant notifications while we seek to understand the possible impacts of these chemicals on the health of staff exposed to them,” a spokeswoman said.
On November 4, after being threatened with legal action by the UFU, the EPA also provided the West Footscray test results to the union.
Dunell said the experiences of the firefighters showed there was no rhyme or reason why one person got sick and another didn’t.
“There are probably 20-30 firefighters who are still very sick and still living with their symptoms. You don’t know what you’ve been exposed to and you don’t know what effects it will have down the track. That does play on your mind.
“There’s an unknown and that fire was very unknown.”