Export-ready tobacco valued in billions of kwacha went up in smoke on Saturday in a warehouse Limbe Leaf Tobacco Company Limited is renting at Kanengo in Lilongwe.
So fierce was the fire, said to have started around midday, that even the combined fire-fighting force of fire fighters and vehicles from Kamuzu International Airport (KIA) and Lilongwe City Council could not douse it.
The fire fighters failed to get full entry into the warehouse until late on Saturday as its heat prompted them to attack it from afar.
Visibly shocked and tensed up Limbe Leaf officials refused to comment on the incident, stating that they will issue an official statement after carrying out investigations, including the cause and value.
Apart from causing damage inside the giant warehouse, measuring 619-square metres, the fire threatened to cross-over to an adjacent Alliance One Tobacco warehouse.
Alliance One offered the fire fighters use of its water in efforts to quench the fire, which sent billows of thick smoke that could be seen from many kilometres away.
“Stopping the fire [from] crossing over to the next warehouse is one of our priority actions now,” assistant chief fire officer Jimmy Nkhalamba said in an interview.
The fire fighting team accomplished that goal by late Saturday evening.
Added Nkhalamba: “We are also doing everything to put out the fire in the first warehouse, but this will clearly be a long-haul fight, for even when we were summoned here, much damage had already been done in the warehouse.”
It is said that the warehouse guards did not detect the fire quickly and when the Lilongwe City Council satellite fire fighting unit at Kanengo was finally alerted, and officers drove to the scene later and noted the seriousness of the fire threat, they summoned support from their KIA colleagues.
Among other things, the fire fighters had to slice open the bottom parts of two metal doors, to gain initial entry into the warehouse. Even when the main door was finally opened ajar, the heat in the warehouse was so fierce that they had to bore some three openings through the warehouse walls, to try and improve lighting and prevent suffocation of the fire-fighters.
Many people at the disaster scene described the fire as the worst they had witnessed in the tobacco industry and feared this would be a big blow to Limbe Leaf Company Limited, one of the leading companies exporting Malaw’s tobacco. n