Chinese lantern believed to have started huge fire at Midlands recycling plant near Birmingham

Rescue services are still tackling the fire that broke out in Smethwick on Sunday evening

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The Independent Online

A major fire at a factory in Smethwick where 100,000 tonnes of plastic recycling bundle material caught fire was started by a Chinese lantern, the fire service have confirmed.  

Approximately 200 firefighters were deployed to battle the blaze that caused thick plumes of smoke to rise 6,000ft in the air.

Firefighters were called to attend the scene on Sunday evening at the recycling plant J&A Young on Dartmouth Road.

The fire was categorised as “major” by the West Midlands Fire Service because of “the strain it placed resources” and is believed to be the biggest to have ever broken out in the West Midlands. The first call reporting the blaze came in at 11.19pm, and despite reaching the site within minutes, it had grown so rapidly the fire service had to split it into three specific fire-fighting areas.

The fire has now been reduced to approximately a third of its original size.

Now MPs have spoken out against the use of lanterns, arguing that they are dangerous for both industrial sites and conservation.

Tom Watson, Labour MP for West Bromwich took to Twitter and said the incident “should spell the end of Chinese lanterns. They're just not safe.” Meanwhile, in a joint statement, the National Farmers Union rural surveyor Louise Staples said: “Our members know how dangerous these lanterns can be. They can harm or kill farm animals by ingesting a wire frame in chopped grass and there is the fire risk to standing and stored crops, to buildings and they can cause wild fires on moorland.

“As we have seen today, they can also cause severe fires on an industrial scale, an event that left several people injured.

“We really would hope people would think twice about releasing them into the air because of the very real dangers they pose.”

Speaking from the scene, Vij Randeniya , Chief Fire Officer for the West Midlands Fire Service said the fire was under control, but had been very difficult to contain. He said: “It was quite a tricky incident because the fire moved and spread so quickly. The fire happened in a space measuring 300 square metres, so we have been trying to contain a blaze covering an area that big.”

Residents were instructed to stay inside their properties without opening windows and doors. Mr Randeniya said: “Plastic also burns at a high rate and produces acrid, toxic smoke.

“We are ‘modelling the plume’, so we are looking at how big the fire is and how high it’s gone. The air quality at the moment means that everyone is safe, but people should not be opening their windows or putting their washing out today.

“The fire is releasing a lot of smoke which is toxic, but it is not at ground level.”

Now Mr Randeniya, who is President of the Chief Fire Officers Association, has called for a meeting with “those in the top level of waste management.”

“We are going to be here for a few days trying to put the fire out”, he said. “This is the 15th fire in a waste transfer site in the West Midlands alone. We would like to have a meeting with the top level of waste management - we are spending a lot of time and resources dealing with these.”

Two fire fighters were taken to hospital “as a precaution” and eight were treated by ambulances on the scene for minor injuries. The fire is believed to have caused up to £6million in damage.

CCTV footage of the event captured a lantern landing on the plastic stacks in the industrial site. Eight minutes later, it set on fire. West Midlands Fire Service is now calling for a review into the use of Chinese lanterns.

“We don’t want to be party poopers”, said Mr Randeniya, “but we have cause and effect here. They [the lanterns] can travel for miles and the wind currents have been particularly fierce with this fire. These lanterns have set fire to a number of properties and waste sites before.”

There were 35 fire engines and three hydraulic platforms being used to extinguish the fire, along with two high volume pumping units.

By Monday afternoon, the unit had received over four hundred calls about the blaze.

Motorists were also urged to avoid the M5, whilst nearby Galton Valley Primary School was shut due to road closures.

Birmingham International airport were alerted to the blaze due to the smoke plumes, which could be seen by motorists as far away as Oxford and Coventry. A spokesperson for the airport said: "Our operation has been running as normal today. We have had no disruptions."

In a statement released on Sky News, the director for Jayplas thanked the emergency services for their "speedy response" and for "dealing with this incident in a thoroughly professional manner".

"I'd also like to thank our staff on site for raising the alarm as soon as they were aware of the fire which allowed the fire brigade to act quickly and reduce the severity of the incident. Speaking with the Fire Investigation Officer, it looks likely the fire was caused by a Chinese lantern on site. This was a tragic accident of which we had no control. We would like to apologise to all of our neighbours for any disruption caused by this incident and hope to see things back to normal as quickly as possible.

"Jayplas will do everything we can to assist the emergency services and the Environment Agency to ensure the site and surrounding areas are made safe and cleaned up as quickly as possible with minimum impact to the local environment. We hope to have the site up and running as soon as possible."