Outgoing fire chief recalls huge Buncefield fire operation in Hemel Hempstead

Fire boss Roy Wilsher was just a few months into the job when he got the phone call that he would remember for the rest of his life.

Wednesday, 15th March 2017, 3:51 pm
Updated Friday, 24th March 2017, 11:05 am
Roy Wilsher had been in charge for just a few months when Buncefield exploded

Having been appointed as chief fire officer for Hertfordshire in April 2005, the events that unfolded in the early hours of Sunday December 11 that year were certainly a baptism of fire.

Now, after 12 years, he’s moving on at the end of this month – and the Buncefield explosion will surely stand as his biggest operation.

“When you come through the ranks you get all sorts of calls,” remembers Roy.

Smoke billowing from the flames reached as far away as France

“But by the time you get to being chief fire officer, you know if your phone goes off at that time that something serious has happened.”

The words of that call at 6.08am were “Guv’nor, Buncefield’s on fire.”

It’s a call Roy wouldn’t have wanted, having been up since 3am looking after an ill child.

Roy says: “You almost do a double take because it’s so early. I asked him again if he said Buncefield was on fire, and he said yes .

Roy Wilsher meets HRH Prince Charles shortly after the fire

“Your mind clocks into training, so I started thinking everything through – the next phone calls and reports.

“It was hard to comprehend, it was only when you got there you realised the size of it. It’s the biggest I’ve dealt with. You’re used to dealing with fires but not on that scale.”

Thankfully no-one had been killed, but the big test was to come for Roy and his firefighters – how to douse flames so large that the smoke was reaching as far as France.

He said: “We did have a discussion early on about whether we should just let it burn. But we decided because of pollution and the impact on residents, that we would try and put it out.

Smoke billowing from the flames reached as far away as France

“The important thing was to get all our resources in place before we tackled the fire. It would simply re-ignite if we ran out of those resources, which is why we didn’t tackle the fire until almost 24 hours later.

“I was told it could burn for up to 10 days, but it was out by Wednesday. Some people said that was impossible.”

The efforts of firefighters in tackling the biggest fire of its type ever seen will no doubt be of great pride to Roy, who begins his high-profile role as chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council on April 1.

And Roy is confident the service is in safe hands with his deputy, and soon to be successor, Darryl Keen.

Roy Wilsher meets HRH Prince Charles shortly after the fire

He added: “It will be strange to leave after 12 years, but I think we’ve done some fantastic work to protect the people of Hertfordshire, and I’m sure that will continue.”