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Intense heat and extreme danger as firefighters battle tunnel blaze

Photos by Johnny Bugeja and via RGP

By Eyleen Gomez and Brian Reyes

Firefighters were forced to retreat from a blaze in a tunnel on Tuesday that generated intense heat and extremely dangerous zero-visibility conditions.

There was no indication as to what had sparked the fire in the tunnel behind the old incinerator on the east side of the Rock by Harley Street and Dobinson Way, or what had caught alight.

But there was no mistaking the seriousness of the incident.

A thick plume of smoke billowed from a ventilation shaft on the cliff face as firefighters from the Gibraltar Fire and Rescue Service attempted to gain access below.

“After several attempts to gain access to the affected areas within the tunnel, crews have had to retreat due to the intense heat and instability of internal tunnel structures,” the GFRS said in a statement issued at 7.30pm on Tuesday.

“Firefighters continue to deal with the incident whilst working in zero visibility and extremely challenging conditions, with a few near misses in the process whereby rocks have dropped around officers.”

“The cause of the fire remains unclear, but the emanating smoke plume indicates high toxicity, which is hampering operations due to its density.”

As of 8pm, the GFRS remained on scene monitoring progress and would determine when it was possible for crews to “reattempt an offensive.”

The difficult access means the extent of the fire is uncertain and makes it difficult for firefighters to assess what is burning and how best to extinguish it.

But the Chronicle understands there were serious concerns yesterday because parts of tunnels in that area are used to house critical infrastructure related to the supply of water, electricity, telephone and internet services.

Damage to such infrastructure could potentially lead to wider disruption.

The incident started at around midday and the GFRS despatched three fire appliances and 12 firefighters.

Over the course of the day, that figure climbed to 20 firefighters, with a staged recall of additional personnel established for support and continuity.

Late afternoon, the road was closed from Sandy Bay to the mosque at Europa Point amid concerns that smoke might enter Dudley Ward tunnel and that the heat from the fire, coupled to water used by the firefighters, might cause rockfalls.

There was no concern about any impact on nearby Ministry of Defence tunnels, which are a separate network some distance from the affected tunnel, the Chronicle understands.

The dramatic events were being closely followed by the community.

After an initial update at midday, the GFRS informed the public at 1.30pm via Twitter that fire crews were monitoring the tunnel structure “as a result of clear signs of collapse.”

“This is hampering operations and officers on scene doing their utmost to implement a safe and effective action plan,” the GFRS said in its early update.

At three o’clock another tweet informed the public that the crews were working hard but were still unable to deem the area safe for entry.

Other emergency services were also involved.

A spokesperson from the Royal Gibraltar Police told the Chronicle early in the afternoon that both the RGP and Gibraltar Defence Police officers were assisting the GFRS in evacuating the tunnels affected.

“Officers are at the entrances to the tunnels to make sure no members of the public stray into the area, whilst our colleagues in the GFRS deal with the fire,” they said.

“We would ask people to stay away from the area.”

Last night, as the response to the blaze continued, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo posted a message on social media.

“Our firefighters matter more than things,” he wrote.

“There are things inside the tunnels but our most precious assets are not things, but our people.”

“As they continue to battle this fierce fire all of Gibraltar will pray and/or hope that our fire fighters will stay
totally safe.”

“THANK YOU to the Gibraltar Fire & Rescue Service!”

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