A chemical blaze in an industrial Canberra suburb has sent fireballs soaring into the sky and left a thick plume of potentially toxic smoke hanging over the nation's capital.
Residents in the city's north were woken about 2am by a series of explosions at the Energy Services International factory. Huge flames can still be seen from many kilometres away as firefighters battle to bring the fire under control.
The blaze was expected to continue burning for much of the day, with aerial fire fighting resources brought in to help douse the flames. NSW firefighters have also been called in as backup.
The fire has forced the closure of several schools as authorities this morning enforced a 10-kilometre exclusion zone around the factory.
ACT Emergency Services Agency chief Mark Crossweller said early fears about a potentially toxic plume had since "abated immensely" as more detailed atmospheric information was gathered.
However the entire suburb of Mitchell had been evacuated because of the possibility of toxins in the smoke from the fire.
The factory contained drums of transformer oil and of sodium powder, which were believed to be causing the explosions.
Phosgene gas fears
The Emergency Services Authority said the by-product of the substance being burned, PCB, was a smoke plume that potentially could contain the highly toxic gas, phosgene.
The gas, which was used as a chemical weapon during World War I, has a low odour but can be lethal, with symptoms taking some time to present.
"Phosgene is known to cause irritation to skin and eyes, sore throat, nausea, headaches and dizziness, vomiting, chest pain and difficulty breathing," a fire brigade spokesman said.
"The ACT Fire Brigade believe the risk to the community is low but continue to take all precautions."
The fire brigade says so far there have been no abnormal readings from atmospheric monitoring but these would continue throughout the day.
As a result, the exclusion zone has recently been reduced to a 300m radius, but all schools north of Lake Burly Griffin have been closed for the day as a precaution.
Residents of several north Canberra suburbs - including Franklin, Crace, Harrison, Watson, Downer, Kaleen, Lyneham and Hackett - had earlier been warned to stay indoors, close doors and windows and not use air-conditioners or heaters, but that warning has recently been lifted.
It is not a sitting day in federal parliament and the fire was not expected to have any impact on the working of Parliament House, a spokeswoman said.
An airport spokeswoman said no flights to or from Canberra would be disrupted, but planes would be diverted around the smoke plume.
A spokeswoman for the National Captial Authority said Lake Burley Griffin, which divides the city, has been shut down for all uses today.
Jacqui Girvan, from the Canberra and Region Visitors Centre, which is north of Lake Burley Griffin, said the nation’s capital was moving more freely than usual this morning.
She decided to walk to work, expecting traffic to be bumper-to-bumper.
''It actually hasn’t been as bad as normal.
''All the schools on this side of town are closed and the pre-schools, so that would have had an impact on parents going to work, I’d imagine.
''By the time they gave it the all clear, which was 8 o’clock, some people may have decided not to go to work."
Smoke from the fire has drifted to the neighbouring NSW centres of Queanbeyan and Bungendore, about 40 kilometres from Canberra, but warm weather is helping dissipate the cloud.
'I thought it was a bombing'
Locals told stories about houses shaking and windows rattling as the fire began consuming the factory.
Lucy Brown, 19, was asleep when a loud explosion shook the house in which she was sleeping.
"I woke up because the house was shaking and the banging noises," she told the Canberra Times.
"At first I though it was an earthquake and then I thought it was a bombing."
- Canberra Times