It could be days before residents can safely return to their homes on the streets surrounding the burnt out Wickham warehouses, as the danger shifts from fire to asbestos.
The blaze itself is now confined to the rubble, with small pockets still burning under the collapsed levels, which NSW Fire & Rescue crews are attempting to extinguish with aerial equipment. The rain is also playing a helpful role.
On Wednesday morning, firefighters could not gain direct access with the stability of the remaining structure not yet confirmed.
Fire & Rescue Chief Superintendent Terry Farley said they are working with Council and engineering teams to establish whether or not the walls are sound enough for crews to get in on the ground.
“As you can imagine once the buildings collapsed within each other and there is no roof, there is nothing holding up the sides of the walls so we’re working to make that safe,” Chief Superintendent Farley said.
“We could be here for some days until we can finally extinguish those small pockets of fire which would be underneath all that product,” he said.
Asbestos is now the major concern.
The now collapsed roof was composed of Super Six sheeting, with potentially toxic debris now littering neighboring streets.
A specialist clean up on parts of Milford Street will be conducted and nearby residents are being instructed to stay inside and keep their doors and windows closed until given the all clear.
HAZMAT, EPA and Public Works crews are on site, with an independent asbestos assessor. Air monitors are also being installed.
Newcastle City’s Police Commander, Detective Superintendent Wayne Humphrey said they are trying to pin down just how far downwind the contamination could have spread.
“We have received reports that to the west of the fire location, which would have been in accordance with the wind direction yesterday, there could be some asbestos contamination of residences and schools,” Detective Superintendent Humphrey said.
The rain is currently wetting down the asbestos particles which is helping mitigate some of the risk, and a website will be set up for locals to report possible contamination to the EPA and Safe Work Australia.
Road exclusions are still in place along Annie and Milford Streets, residents from Robert Street have been given the all clear to return to their homes.
Strike Force Lynette has been established to investigate whether or not the cause and manner of the blaze was suspicious.
Although police would not go into detail, the fire is believed to have started on the first floor.