Wrong extinguishers help fires take hold

DEBBIE JAMIESON
Last updated 05:00 11/09/2013

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A series of mistakes meant that once fire broke out in the Fat Badgers Pizzeria kitchen little could prevent it consuming the restaurant and the upstairs World Bar in central Queenstown in May.

The fire started with an incorrectly filled deep-vat fat fryer and, once it was under way, staff had little chance of putting it out with no extinguishers nearby and, once an extinguisher was found, it was the wrong type for the fire and was used incorrectly.

A hole, thought to be left by builders, in a fume extraction system allowed it to escape into World Bar.

Fire risk management officer Stu Ide found the cause of the fire was accidental but said it was one in a long list of vat fires in the region that could have either been prevented or extinguished with the correct equipment, used properly.

Similar problems were behind the fire that destroyed the kitchen at Fitzpatrick's Irish Pub in Wanaka two weeks later and the fire that destroyed Alexandra's Pie Cart last year.

Vat fires are now the leading cause of commercial kitchen fires in Queenstown Lakes and Central Otago and with hundreds of vats in the region Mr Ide wants restaurant owners to heed the safety message and review their extinguishers and staff training in their use.

"All the (vat) fires I've been involved with were accidental fires. None have been deliberately lit. What is the concern is that people are trying to put the fire out with a lack of how to do it and the incorrect fire extinguisher to do it."

In the case of Fat Badgers the chef had not put enough cooking oil into the vat to cover thermostats. The oil overheated and reached its auto-ignition temperature.

As the kitchen fire extinguishers were being refilled following a small pizza oven fire three days earlier, another staff member went upstairs to World Bar and grabbed another extinguisher. She gave the fire a "quick squirt" which appeared to aggravate it.

She then went back upstairs to grab a fire blanket but the smoke became too much.

It spread quickly upstairs via a fume extraction system which had been compromised by pipe work inside the building.

At the height of the blaze six pump appliances were fighting the fire, while the spectacular blaze saw central Queenstown blocked off as hundreds of people looked on.

Mr Ide said the fire could have been extinguished with the right equipment used correctly.

Giving the fire a "quick squirt" was incorrect. "She needed to give it the whole nine yards."

The massive fire that gutted the kitchen of Fitzpatrick's Irish Pub and severely damaged the rest of the building could also have been controlled if the correct extinguisher had been used, he said.

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About 80 people were in Fitzpatricks on the night of June 9 when a customer noticed flames coming from the kitchen vat.

The bar manager attempted to extinguish it with fire extinguishers and a fire blanket but the extinguishers were not suitable. They caused the fire to flare up and made the situation worse.

Mr Ide said an investigation found the backup or fail safe thermostat on the vat which should have controlled the temperature of the oil had become detached from the control switch.

It was unclear when that happened or whether it was deliberately removed.

When the primary thermostat failed, the lack of an alternative device meant the oil temperature increased until it reached its auto-ignition temperature.

Mr Ide said that of the six classes of fire extinguisher, the wet chemical extinguisher was the best for extinguishing vat fires and staff needed to be trained in their use.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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