On the job: Firemen with breathing apparatus tackle the fire at Ballina Fair shopping centre yesterday.
On the job: Firemen with breathing apparatus tackle the fire at Ballina Fair shopping centre yesterday. Rebecca Lollback

Fire clears Ballina Fair

HUNDREDS of people had to be evacuated from Ballina Fair twice yesterday afternoon after an electrical fault sparked a fire at a cafe.

Concerns about potentially toxic fumes forced the shopping centre to remain closed for more than five hours, until the complex was given the all-clear by NSW Fire’s hazardous materials unit just after 5pm.

The blaze started at Cafe Sebastian about midday.

It is believed an electrical fault, possibly because of the heavy rain yesterday, caused the fire.

Fire NSW’s duty commander for the Northern Rivers, Brad Harrison, said it was a small fire that was extinguished before crews arrived at the scene.

Shoppers and workers were evacuated as a ‘precaution’, but were allowed to re-enter the complex after a short time.

However emergency services were called back to the Ballina Fair just half-an-hour later.

People had started to complain about the lingering smoke, and concerns grew that it might be toxic.

It was reported that several people collapsed as they tried to leave the centre to get fresh air.

“We came to the conclusion that the smoke had gone through the air conditioning unit and spread throughout the entire complex," duty commander Harrison said.

“Some people had a reaction to that smoke and the centre was evacuated again.

“But we didn’t find any toxins during our testing.”

Ambulance duty officer Greg Powell said paramedics treated 12 people at the scene and took 11 of them to Ballina Hospital.

“They were suffering from high irritation and mild respiratory irritation, and a couple of the patients had extremely high blood pressure,” he said.

“We believe up to another 12 people self-presented at Ballina Hospital with similar symptoms.”

The exact number of patients could not be confirmed yesterday, but a spokeswoman for North Coast Area Health Service said paramedics brought in 13 patients and that at least six other people presented at the hospital.

Several employees at Ballina Fair said they were furious at the way the situation was handled, saying they had been ‘left in the dark’.

“We were very confused and worried. We had no idea what was going on,” one shop assistant said.

“We were evacuated, then allowed back, then evacuated again.

“It was pretty obvious that no one knew what was going on.”

But another staff member praised emergency service crews for keeping members of the public away from a potentially dangerous situation.

“It was just chaos. There was smoke everywhere,” she said.

Representatives from Ballina Fair’s centre management were approached for a comment about the fire, but said they would issue a media statementlater in the day.

That statement did not reach The Northern Star before deadline last night.

The centre was re-opened by 5.30pm.

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