23 Oct 2019

SkyCity fire still burning, PM to visit today

11:06 am on 23 October 2019

Flames and billows of black smoke are still coming out from the roof of the SkyCity International Convention centre in Auckland.

The fire still burning early on Wednesday.

Flames and smoke coming from the roof of the convention centre this morning Photo: RNZ / Liu Chen

Firefighters say they're trying their best to get the fire under control after it broke out around 1pm yesterday. Twenty-six appliances are on the scene with laddered hoses trying to reach to the top.

But fears are no longer held that a large crane might topple over as the huge fire continues to burn.

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The crane is visible through the smoke this morning. Photo: RNZ / Amy Williams

Fire and Emergency Auckland regional manager Ron Devlin said there was some worry last night that if the crane overheated it could fall, but he was now confident it was safe.

He said a firefighter who was taken to hospital yesterday for tests and monitoring has been released.

Mr Devlin said the blaze has done what firefighters have expected overnight, a large part of the roof has been sacrificed as planned to safeguard the lower reaches of the seven-storey-building and planning teams were putting in place their strategy for the day.

"The strategy is... how we now contain it in that space and everything is looking reasonably positive towards that."

Mr Devlin said the complex material of the roof - made of straw, plywood and bitumen - was making it harder to get the fire under control.

Firefighters had access to the building - to the floor below where fire is burning. "That causes some safety issues for us. Obviously, as it's burning ... debris will fall. We don't want that on top of the firefighters while they're in there so we want to get that down and then we can go in."

That might take two or three hours, he said.

High winds were also testing firefighters and would have to be factored into the day's plans.

He could not predict when it might be brought under control. "We're going to be here all day and probably into the evening. It's a big fire in a very, very large building." It was over 30 metres tall which added difficulty to fighting it externally also.

Specialist investigators would start work on the cause once it was brought under control.

It was the largest and most complex fire the city had experienced in recent times, Mr Devlin said.

Asked if the building might be a write-off, he replied: "I'm not an engineer but I don't believe it is."

Flames engulfed the top of the building yesterday afternoon, starting on the seventh floor - the roof - before spreading to the sixth. The cause of the fire is not yet known.

Traffic disruption, buildings closed

Auckland Emergency Management said diversions were expected to remain in place until at least mid-morning and commuters should expect major delays.

Read the full story on traffic disruption: SkyCity fire throws city commute into chaos

The TVNZ central city building and TV studio were evacuated this morning, the broadcaster said.

The Auckland District Court, Central City Library and Chorus House are closed.

Magazine publisher Bauer asked staff to stay away from the office at the City Works Depot. "We will be monitoring the situation and updating staff of any changes to that advice. We have also followed Civil Defence advice to shut down the air conditioning."

MetService has issued a strong wind watch for the Auckland region, warning of gusts of up to 100 km/h in exposed places. There is also a possibility of heavy showers, hail and thunder.

Met Service Meteorologist Tamara Vuksa said the winds won't be helping the firefighters currently trying to put out the fire at the convention centre.

"We have gale or severe gale force winds... it will probably cause some trouble for firefighters," Ms Vuksa said.

Prime Minister to visit

Jacinda Ardern, who usually spends Wednesdays in the capital, changed her plans and will meet with Fire and Emergency this afternoon.

She is also expected to meet representatives from SkyCity and Fletchers.

'I'm now wondering if it will put it back years'

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff told First Up he has grave fears that the convention centre will not be ready for the APEC conference in November 2021.

"I originally thought this [the fire] would put it back months, I'm now wondering if it will put it back years."

He said at its peak 14,000 people would be coming into city for APEC, and although the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has a plan B, the fire would mean huge economic consequences for the city.

He intended discussing the issue with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Mr Goff said he is awaiting a report on the suitability of council staff coming into the CBD to work. With the thick black smoke, you could "feel the acridity in your throat, eyes and mouth, so it's unsuitable conditions for workers".

He said at the council building they had closed down the air-conditioning so it was sealed but smoke still smoke still seeps in.

While the precise cause of the fire was unknown at this stage, "you've got to imagine it is people using construction equipment on or just under the roof that led to the fire starting."

Mr Goff said firefighters were doing a great job but it was proving more difficult than they first imagined.

He said the fire was burning in the long-run iron on the roof, underneath a bitumix covering for insulation, and under that a compressed straw insulation and noise baffle system but with no sprinkler system to contain any fires.

He said he spoke to Sky City representatives last night and it was a total heartbreak for them added to the many delays of the project. It was also a huge setback for Fletcher Building with the project already costing them millions of dollars in cost overruns.

Auckland Emergency Management Acting Director Sarah Sinclair said ongoing disruption is expected today.

"We urge people to use their common sense and not put themselves in harm's way by standing in smoke plumes or downwind of smoke."

Health advice

A Fire and Emergency alert was sent again this morning asking people nearby to stay out of the smoke, close windows and doors, turn off air conditioning.

Auckland's Regional Public Health Service said people living or working near the convention centre should take precautionary measures to avoid breathing in the smoke, inclusing staying indoors, closing windows, shutting external ventilation, seeing a doctor if smokes causes shortness of breath or wrosening of asthma symptoms, wiping down surfaces - especially food prep and cooking - in areas affected.

People who smoke, elderly, children, those with heart disease, asthma or lung conditions are at the greatest risk of smoke inhalation and should avoid exposure, the service said.

But there is no cause to worry for people who are healthy, the health service said most symptoms disappear soon after exposure to the smoke ends.