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Design flaws hampered fire fighters' efforts to tackle Center Parcs blaze

FIRE FIGHTERS have criticised the design of Center Parcs' Elveden holiday park in Suffolk, which they claimed made it very difficult for them to tackle the blaze which wrecked the structure last week.

According to crews, huge areas of bitumen coated flat roofing covering low rise structures around the main glazed atrium quickly became unstable, preventing them from tackling the fire at close quarters.

The fire broke out at 10.30am on 3 April and devastated the trademark plastic glazed dome of the Center Parcs Plaza centre, along with several single storey retail buildings alongside. All 3,500 visitors and 400 staff were evacuated. One man was injured when tackling the initial blaze.

The adjacent hexagonal glazed swimming pool structure survived intact. The £51M development was built by a KierBouygues joint venture in 1989.

Fire fighters highlighted the design of services on the flat roof around the atrium and insulation mounted in the roof voids which, they said, provided a path for the fire to travel through the building, putting hose crews at risk from falling molten debris.

'There was a lot of flat roof here, which made the job more dangerous for our firemen with burning asphalt raining down on them, ' said Suffolk Fire Service station commander Sean Byrne.

He added that fire fighters were unable to get inside the structure once it was ablaze as they feared it would collapse.

'We decided against entering the building and hit the fire from the outside with turntable hoses, ' said Byrne.

Investigations into the cause are focusing on repair work being carried out on the roof of the low rise structures at the time. Large quantities of the bitumen-based roofing fuelled the ensuing blaze.

The ferocity of the fire meant that that fire fighting units from Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex had to be drafted in to tackle the blaze.

Flames spread rapidly through the structure's roofing insulation, making it difficult for fire fighters to follow the path of the spreading blaze. Polystyrene insulation was sandwiched by plywood and covered with a bitumen and felt topping, which allowed flames to spread through roofing.

Suffolk Fire Service assistant divisional officer Ian Taylor said:

'It was possible to see the heat of the fire but not how far the flames have spread.' He added that this was a common problem when tackling many new buildings.

Although fire walls were designed to restrict the spread of the blaze, fire fighters said they were quickly breached as flames swept through the roof insulation.

'The only way to deal with such a fire is to draw a line in the sand and accept that you will allow the fire to take so much of the building, ' said Taylor.

Fire expert Young Wong of Buro Happold's fire engineering design and risk analysis department said that this went against normal design practice.

'Such walls would normally be designed to compartmentalise the whole of that area - including the roof, ' he said.

The fire last week was not the first at the resort. Others had been put out before the flames had reached the roof and had a chance to take hold.

However, the scale of the fire last week and the number of fire engines required also caused problems. Ornamental boulders flanking the network of roads in and around the park meant that fire trucks had problems manoeuvring into position.

And although the burning structure was surrounded by 20 water hydrants, the supply pressure meant that only one hose could be used at full capacity, limiting the initial fire fighting capability.

Sprinklers were being installed at the time of the fire (see box). However, fire experts said this week that this was not strictly necessary under design codes and added that as all 3,500 holidaymakers and 400 staff were evacuated safely, the building had performed well.

Damage was mostly confined to single storey structures and so the threat to people inside was minimal.

'Fire regulations for single storey buildings are often relaxed due to the low threat to human life, and I would not expect to see sprinklers in a single storey building, ' said Wong.

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