On a normal day the Buncefield depot (Hertfordshire Oil Storage Ltd) provides the UK with 5% of its road fuel. But in the early hours of Sunday, December 11, 2005, that all changed. An explosion, and subsequent fire which lasted four days, destroyed around 20 tanks holding three million gallons of fuel each. Although 5% might not sound much, a large part of that figure supplied the busy local areas of London and the Home Counties.

Independent dealer Steve Highland, who runs Potton Service Station in Bedfordshire and Bluntersham Service Station in Cambridgeshire, was in the unique position of not just being a petrol retailer, but a retained firefighter who attended the Buncefield disaster for several days. “For the fire service to put the blaze out in four days was phenomenal,” he said. “They did a brilliant job. The scale of the disaster was enormous. It required 400,000 litres of foam to tackle it – that is 10 lorry loads – which was mixed with 37 million litres of water. They used 32 kilometres of 6in main hose to feed the new high-volume pumps – only one in every two counties has got them and they had to be called in from all over the country. It was a great team effort. It could so easily have been a national disaster. An office block 300 metres away was severely damaged. It doesn’t take a lot of working out to realise how different the consequences could have been if it had occurred on a weekday – just through the flying glass alone.”

Steve’s sites are both supplied by BP, and he was due a tanker delivery – from Buncefield – on the morning of the blaze. However he said his first concerns were with the BP personnel he talks to on a regular basis. “Thankfully they were okay. And I have to say that BP distribution staff have done a brilliant job coping with the consequences of the blaze as well as the Christmas rush. We were out of fuel for only six hours on one day before Christmas. I think that’s excellent. And I heard rumours that the BP side at Buncefield would be operational again by late spring.”

Steve said the events at Buncefield should remind everyone not to be complacent working on a forecourt. “We regularly train staff to make them aware of what could happen. Everyone should double-check their procedures. You can never be too sure. Obviously there’s going to be a very thorough investigation by the Health & Safety Executive into what happened.”

Meanwhile a member of staff at a Texaco-branded site in Hemel Hempstead, just a mile away from the blast, said she was 15 miles away in Dunstable at the time of the explosion yet she still heard it. She declined to be named but told Forecourt Trader: “I was very shocked. It was horrendous and very scary.”

Despite being so close to Buncefield, the forecourt itself wasn’t damaged but was closed on the Sunday morning as emergency services took control of the situation. Windows nearby were blown in and some staff suffered damage to their homes. The site re-opened late on the Sunday afternoon and was very busy with drivers panic buying. The woman continued: “We were very lucky; we didn’t actually run out of fuel until the following Sunday, but we have got rather large tanks. The Christmas rush didn’t help and we did run out for three days over Christmas. Most of the garages around here were running short. I heard that there was no fuel left at all in Watford at one point. Despite the disruptions, things seem to be getting back to normal now.”

Nick Vandervell, spokesman for the UKPIA, confirmed that there were localised problems over the Christmas period but added that it’s always a very busy time and can often present problems. “Around 15-20 sites maximum were without fuel which was quite good considering there are 1,000 sites in the Greater London area.”

Total, which owns 60% of Buncefield, agreed that there were some short-term supply problems. Spokesman, Ian Hutchison said: “The situation wasn’t easy but we worked with our partners to ensure the disruption was minimal. We’ve significantly reorganised our distribution resources with the help of Wincanton and other haulage suppliers. We’re using alternative terminals at Purfleet, Theale and in west London.” And BP reported a whole host of difficulties in the run up to Christmas but a spokesperson said everything was back to normal now.

Velautham Thaya, a BP dealer who runs the Norbury Hill Service Station in Toddington, Bedfordshire, said he hadn’t been badly affected by the incident, but it had meant that managing fuel supplies had taken a bit more organisation. “Deliveries which used to come from Buncefield are now coming from Northampton so the fuel’s taking longer to arrive. Normally if I ordered today I would be guaranteed to get it tomorrow, but now it’s the day after,” he said.

Velautham added that he’d taken the precaution of buying extra fuel over Christmas to make sure he didn’t run out.

Texaco spokesman Daniel Schraibman said that Christmas, rather than the Buncefield fire, was the bigger problem for his company: “There was an impact on supplies but the bigger issue was the fact that it happened pre-Christmas – the busiest time of the year for us. At the worst time there were a handful of sites without fuel and we did have to prioritise orders. Dealers who were saying they were running short got their fuel first, before retailers who were simply waiting for their regular order. None are without fuel now and there’s a good supply across the country.”

Finally retailer Bharat Visani, who runs the Texaco-branded Tongwell Service Station in Milton Keynes, was really hit by Buncefield when disruption to his fuel deliveries resulted in a load of unsold shop stock.

“We did run out of fuel and we were also down on our Christmas sales – if you can’t sell petrol then the shop sales will suffer,” he said. “We usually sell a lot of Christmas confectionery, like boxed chocolates, but people won’t come in if there’s no fuel. I’m now going to have to sell it off at discount. The Easter stock is already arriving so I need to make room for that.

“We were disrupted for a couple of weeks,” he said. “We weren’t getting deliveries on time. We ran completely dry of everything on about three occasions and then out of either diesel or unleaded at other times. Things seem to be back to normal now, but I think it’s a matter of wait and see. It won’t be until the end of January until we can really see if the oil companies are able to keep up with demand. The companies that were drawing from that depot are now drawing from depots elsewhere, which will have to keep up with extra demand. We are now placing orders four to five working days in advance.”


? Buncefield is a joint venture site between Total, which owns 60%, and Texaco, with 40%. However other companies at the site include BP, Shell and the British Pipeline Agency.

? The terminal receives, stores and distributes finished petroleum products through the Fina-Line pipeline which pumps products from the Total Lindsey oil refinery.

? Products stored on site include ultra low sulphur diesel, unleaded petrol, super unleaded motor spirit, kerosene, gas oil and aviation fuel.

? 2.37 million metric tonnes of product were put through Buncefield in 2002.

? Approximately 400 road tankers are usually loaded each day on a 24-hour basis.

? Buncefield services Heathrow – providing 30% – and Gatwick with aviation fuel.

? Buncefield accounts for 5% of UK road fuel but within that 5% a large part serves London and the Home Counties.

? Buncefield has a fire alarm system that is tested 20 times a year – the legal requirement is 12 times a year.

? The nearest fire brigade is at Hemel Hempstead, three miles away. There are 60 handheld fire extinguishers on site.

? Fire fighting measures on site include a firewater lagoon that holds 1.4 million litres of water plus there’s an off-site foam trailer that carries up to 20,000 litres of foam.