Families reeling from ‘apocalyptic’ Fisons blaze want damages

As dawn broke over Bramford at 4am on a sunny Bank Holiday Monday last May, it was clear there was something wrong with the sky.

Beyond thick plumes of smoke and ash, an orange glow was burning through the clouds – a quick glance across the street proved to neighbours their worst fears had finally come true.

A huge blaze – which residents described as “inevitable” after six previous arson attempts – was engulfing the former Fisons factory.

“It was apocalyptic – like something out of a movie,” recalls Robert Olson, who has lived opposite the Grade II-listed Victorian landmark in Paper Mill Lane for three-and-a-half years.

“We always knew the site was going to go up – it was a matter of when.”

Now, 18 months on from the devastating blaze, those same neighbours say they are still suffering - with five-figure-sums worth of damage done to their properties.

“It’s quasi-warzone, the site is still a complete state,” Mr Olson added. “Even now, when we get a strong wind, there’s still debris coming from our roofs into the gardens. Big chunks of charcoal, asbestos, lead.”

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The group are also concerned about their long-term health, after inhaling smoke from the blaze, and despite being assured the asbestos material from their roofs is safe, they are anxious as to how it will affect them.

“Nearly all residents I know suffered illness and breathing issues for several weeks after the fire,” said Mr Olson.

“We’ve been assured that it’s safe asbestos, but clearly the inhalation of smoke and lead is an issue.

“You just don’t know further down the line what the consequences of that could be.”

Yet when neighbours have confronted the directors of Paper Mill Lane Properties, which own the site, residents say their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. One resident claims to have been told he wouldn’t get a penny.

After months of trying to reach the firm’s insurers through official channels, Mr Olson is now looking for lawyers to take on his case and that of three others.

Burning embers from the huge blaze scorched holes in people’s rooftops – causing leaks – and extensive damage to the roof of a neighbouring block of flats which has cost around £160,000.

Collectively, for Mr Olson’s house and another three properties, he estimates costs for the damage could reach £40,000.

Fellow neighbour Paul McNally, who is also looking for legal representation, said he fears it’s only a matter of time before the last remaining building on the site goes up in flames.

Paper Mill Lane Properties have been approached for comment.

•Trespassers spotted on site ‘almost every day’

Authorities had been called to the site 43 times in the five years leading up to the major blaze, an investigation previously found.

Arsonists struck at the derelict fertiliser factory six times in that same period.

Security arrived shortly after the fire but this has now disappeared, the neighbours added.

“Still, pretty much every day, there are people over there,” said Mr Olson.

“I’ve been here three-and-a-half years, and it’s been constant, having to file police reports, reporting the five fires that happened before the big one.

“One day, someone – maybe even a child, as so many go over there – will get seriously hurt.”

Mr McNally also raised concerns about Mid Suffolk Council’s role in taking action at the site, and added: “You can see through the fences the amount of fly-tipping that’s been done since.”

•What are the authorities doing to help?

A council spokeswoman said derelict buildings are the responsibility of the site’s owners, but added that they will explore enforcement measures if necessary. Demolition is expected to start again soon after Covid delays.

“Shortly after the fire Mid Suffolk District Council’s building control team issued a counter notice to the owners, outlining the need to maintain security at the site, and also obtain the necessary planning and listed building consent prior to any demolition work being carried out,” they added.

“Regular site visits are undertaken by the landowner, who made repairs to perimeter fencing and gates in April following reports received by our building control team.

“Options for the site’s future use are still being considered and council officers recently met with the landowner for a planning pre-application discussion, with a further meeting scheduled for early 2021.”