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On This Day in History – The Buncefield Explosion

Fifteen years ago today, at 6am on Sunday 11th December 2005, the largest ever explosion and fire in peacetime Western Europe took place at the Buncefield Oil Storage Depot in Hemel Hempstead.  Miraculously there were no fatalities, and only 60 casualties; but in every other sense the impact of the incident was huge.  Summarising some of the key figures:

  • There was damage out to a radius of 3km and 2000 people were evacuated;
  • 400 businesses and 25 000 staff were directly impacted;
  • Over 25 fire services attended the incident;
  • The Police received 2000 media enquiries in the first two days;
  • Around 5% of the UK’s total stocks of petrol were destroyed and Heathrow Airport had to ration aviation fuel: and
  • The overall financial impact of the incident was later estimated at around £5b.

As well as these quantifiable impacts, there was also pollution of the ground and ground-water from the fire-fighting activity; and, potentially, damage to public health over a wide area from dispersing vast quantities of particulates into the atmosphere.  The situation was also complicated by the site’s proximity to the M1 motorway.

Coming only a year after the Civil Contingencies Act (2004) came into force, this was the first real test of the UK’s new emergency planning framework, and it appeared to work very well.  Pre-planned command and control arrangements successfully coordinated the response across the emergency services, local authorities, the NHS, Environment Agency, Highways Agency and others.  Sadly though, subsequent failures to coordinate responses to major incidents (eg the Manchester Arena bombing and the Grenfell Tower fire); suggest that the quality of the response at Buncefield was more due to local factors in Hertfordshire (such as recent experience of dealing with mass casualty rail incidents) than nationwide adoption of good practice.