View Full Version : Tamahere Fire

15-04-2008, 04:55 AM
We are now all very nervous about using propane as a refrigerant, after this major blaze near Hamilton, New Zealand, which killed 1 fireman and injured 10 others after a refrigerant leak exploded as the firemen entered the building. The stores were filled with butter and cheese which burn well.

Go to youtube and enter Tamahere fire for pics and video

Not too many details availible yet as to what went wrong.

15-04-2008, 09:31 AM
Hey fridgedave,

It will take some time for details to surface. Hopefully the investigation team will do a thorough job.

I'm very much a pro-natural refrigerant person, and so I hope this very regrettable incident won't result in a backlash against the use of natural refrigerants, including hydrocarbons.

But if this incident raises people's awareness of the risks associated with all refrigerants (hydrocarbons included), then that's at least one good thing to come out of this regrettable incident.

I would hope it is an undisputed fact that hydrocarbons can be used as a refrigerant totally safely, as long as the proper measures and infrastructure is in place. The largest refrigeration systems on the planet run on hydrocarbons (oil platforms and refineries)right down to some of the smallest (domestic fridges). As I type this I'm surrounded by around 45,000 kg's (yes 45 tonnes) of propane and other hydrocarbons as I type, and this particular installation has been operating safely for 30+ years.

On the safety side, it would be better if all hydrocarbon refrigerant manufacturers would odorize their gases with the correct odorant. This is, in my opinion, an essential safety
feature which should be mandatory. It is possible (still to early to be sure, though), that the Tamahere site was fitted with a brand of refrigerant that was unodorized, which certainly wouldn't have helped the fire brigade assess the risk.

Remember that, as you hinted in your earlier post, it was the other flammables on site that are responsible for causing the bulk of the inferno. You can be very sure the black smoke and huge plumes of flames continuing for hours on end is NOT burning hydrocarbon refrigerant. As you pointed out, cheeses and other fatty produce are likely to blame for the continual and intensely hot flames. Hydrocarbon refrigerant gases, if they were part of the initial fire, would have only started the fire as they flash out rather quickly. Other flammable material would be required to sustain the fire.

If I recall correctly, a butter truck in Switzerland caught fire some time ago whilst in a tunnel, the flames being so intense that all was left was pools of molten metal on the ground.

Also remember that basically all refrigerant loops are flammable. The 'non-flammable' ratings of certain refrigerant gases are misleading, because they are almost always combustible, and the lubricant combined with it makes for a flammable mixture under the right circumstances. What's more, unlike hydrocarbons, the products of combustion of fluorocarbons and their exotic oils are often extremely toxic. There are many instances of fires developing in systems with so-called 'non-flammable' refrigerants. One in South Africa comes to mind, which also resulted in fatalities.


US Iceman
15-04-2008, 03:55 PM
Some time ago there was a similar event here in the US. A fire started in a cold storage warehouse that used ammonia.

The butter created quite the mess and also contributed to severe damage to the fire fighters equipment.

I certainly don't like hearing about these situations as they create a lot of bad publicity, which could create a lot of unnecessary legal requirements.

However, as allnatural mentioned hydrocarbon systems when properly designed and operated are very safe. Of course this applies to any refrigeration system.;)

16-04-2008, 03:21 AM

I have contacts close to the Tamahere incident, and have been given some further details.

It's too early to be conclusive, but it seems quite clear that:

According to my sources, the fire brigade came to the site on the basis that a smoke alarm had been triggered.
The fire brigade contacted the owner to get access to the premises but said access was not forthcoming, so they forced their way in.
NO FIRE was found.
The fire brigade, in their search, entered the refrigeration plant room.
At some point during the fire brigade's activities at the site, the fire broke out.I'm so grateful for the services of fire brigades all over the world, but the details thus far *may* be starting to raise some questions about whether or not the fire brigade personnel acted properly in this incident.

Sources also tell me that a large number of the firefighters (injured or not) involved in the incident have hired lawyers.

If the fire was triggered by inappropriate actions fire brigade personnel, it will be very unfortunate indeed - not only for those injured, but there will probably be a whole lot of butt-covering, finger pointing and blame shifting to follow.

My sources tell me that the team investigating the incident are pretty good at what they do, so lets hope they get to the heart of the matter, for all concerned.


John Hunter
29-04-2008, 06:41 AM
Recently here in New Zealand there was a violent explosion and fire at reasonably large Cold Storage Plant, and regrettably a Fireman lost his life.. As indicated by previous posts .
There is as you can understand a number of investigations under way into the cause of the explosion.
One allegation is that Propane R290 was the circulating refrigerant.
As I said this has not yet been established or at least not publicly , and my information is only that which I obtain from the local press and my interest is only as refrigeration professional attempting to keep abreast of incidents relevant to this industry..
My understanding is that the Fire service were not aware that the refrigerant was Propane .
And I doubt if they were. On ammonia plants we are required to display Hazchem sign age clearly visible to the plant access. In this case if propane was being used I would have thought that the authorities would have required the HAZCHEM sign 2WE to be displayed. Any trained fireman viewing this would immediately have become extremely cautious. Propane is classed a 2.1 Flammable Gas which ignite on contact with an ignition source.
I have known of propane as a refrigerant but have had no experience in its use I wonder if some of you could update me in its use with reference to the Plant size and or mass of the gas in circulation; installation and operating code requirements ,that apply in your areas. Thank You JH

29-04-2008, 07:20 AM

Although it is not officially confirmed that one of the flammable materials in use on the site was a hydrocarbon refrigerant, my very reliable sources confirm that there was indeed hydrocarbon refrigerant present on the site.

My sources have also recently informed me that the fire was indeed ignited directly due to the actions of fire service personnel in the refrigeration plant room, and that the ignition of the refrigerant+air mixture was what triggered further ignitions of the various other flammable material in the building (cheeses/butter/wood etc) which are the cause of the intense inferno that developed. That is not official, but that is what my sources tell me and they are very reliable.

Note that hydrocarbons+air+ignition = conflagration wave (not an explosion) and is exhausted relatively quickly (it is not slow burning like petrol,oils and wood). Hydrocarbons are not explosives, and ignition results in slow moving flame front (much slower than explosives). But that's not to say that it isn't scary if a big enough pool of refrigerant+air ignites, but it's important to get the facts as straight as possible.

As to what signage was on the site, I do not have sufficient details currently, but you are correct that it certainly SHOULD have had the appropriate HAZCHEM labelling at appropriate points around the site if the charge was high enough to warrant it per the relevant code. If it did not, then that was a probably a serious oversight by those responsible.

Hydrocarbons and ammonia have been used for a long time (100+ years) as a refrigerant fluid, and both are regaining popularity due to the world realising the extremely potent and damaging environmental effects of fluorocarbons - a more silent risk, but arguably even more serious in the long run than the occasional (highly regrettable) refrigerant plant fire.

Hydrocarbons have an even longer history as a fuel (automotive LPG is a cruder form of hydrocarbon refrigerants and identical in terms of flammability risks).

Like ammonia, there are very well established standards and requirements for the storage, transport, handling and use of hydrocarbons such as R290 and R600a (to name a few). You should refer to the relevant dangerous goods codes in your country. They should be pretty easy to find.

There are also standards in place for the use of hydrocarbons in a range of HVACR applications. In Australia, AS1766 is one standard which sets out quite clearly design criteria and such. There are others in other countries. A good Google search will get you headed in the right direction for the information you seek.


25-06-2008, 12:51 PM
Of course we would all like systems to use Natural Refrigerants, but be careful about the hazards. I have searched a number of web pages but so far I cannot find out the scale of the plant. Were these DX systems with 5kgs charge? 10 kgs? Indirect? Can someone give me such information please? The reason I am trying to learnt this is because there can be an over-reaction that says "HYDROCARBONS IN REFRIGERATION IS DANGEROUS" and that is used to stop people putting 500grams in an indirect system with correct safety precautions! Clearly misleading, so please give me some information on the system, in particular DX and size of charge.... Thanks John

US Iceman
25-06-2008, 02:20 PM
This type of situation underscores the need to have fire fighting personnel to be aware of the specifics in any facility within their jurisdiction. My recommendation is to have the fire fighters review the actual facilities before any event occurs and hold regular drills and meetings on-site prior to any potential event.

Owners of such facilities should have written procedures for dealing with emergencies, the fluids used on-site, and where the emergency valves or switches are located. In an emergency operating on unknown turf and with an unknown event or cause (fire is what they are reacting to, not what might be the cause) people tend to resort to what they think might be the answer, which clearly leads to potential uniformed decisions being reached. After all there is problem to be solved, right?

Therefore, if the on-site training and drills occur on a regular basis everyone will know how to handle an emergency evacuation, what to do, and where to react to any known potential threat.

The fact exists that many old facilities have been operating safely for years. Perhaps they were just lucky, or maybe they take a proactive approach from a risk management point of view.

Either way, from a business perspective the owners should be willing to investigate means and methods to protect their investment, people, and production capability to ensure good will within their communities. Having the fire fighters and other emergency personnel involved in planning for contingencies is sound business advice I think.

And, it helps to keep the emotional judgements in check.;)

25-06-2008, 02:26 PM
We should not speculate on anything prior to the official enquiry has made statements of facts. [all close contacts are rumour mungers to say the least ].
There are rumours abounding and everyone has a different angle. Where was everyone/ experts prior to accident ?
Remember a life was lost because of a deficiency in the system, add numerous people permantly injured for the rest of the days.
My opinion is reticulating HP propane in a coldstore complex, without sprinklers and shut down monitoring systems, let alone not advising the Fire Service. The operator has rocks in his head, to be polite.

US Iceman
25-06-2008, 02:35 PM
The operator has rocks in his head, to be polite.

This is a common ailment not constrained by geography.:(

06-07-2008, 02:52 PM
In NZ/ Tamahere site location.We have all sorts of systems and laws in place to prevent this accident from remotely happening. Everyone associated should be very concerned personally and legally, heads should roll is my opinion.
Hopefully I have not killed the forums experienced input by earlier posting.


04-12-2008, 01:00 AM
We had a major propane explosion in Toronto within the last year, and until reading this thread I hadnt even thought that it may have been a situation where propane was the refrigerant. The more I think of it, the more I am inclined to believe that was what happened. It levelled a city block and caused a major uproar...and then silence. It has not been mentioned by the media again.

26-01-2009, 12:08 PM
Hi All.

The New Zealand Fire Service released its investigation report into this tragic incident in Sept. You can find it at their website - look under media then search he page for "Icepak".

It's a big report & covers much territory.

A few key aspects:

400 kg of hydrocarbon refrigerant were in use (95%propane/5%ethane).

Firefighters had no knowledge propane was in use as a refrigerant at this site or generally in New Zealand on an industrial scale

They forced entry with permission

They detected no warning smell typical of LPG or natural gas leaks

The propane supplier has told media they always supply odorised proane (what happened to the odorant?)


26-01-2009, 08:05 PM
Thanks for the update John.

The link is.......


26-01-2009, 11:58 PM
Thanks, Brian - I can't post URLs until I've made 15 postings.

A word of warning - charges have been laid - hasn't been stated against who and what they are, but court proceedings are expected.

The Fire Service report, however, is public. The safety aspects and learnings should be discussed, but not the actions or non-actions of parties.