A MAJOR operation was launched in Burnley after explosions were heard this morning at a factory unit which makes bio-diesel.

Fire chiefs and police threw a 200-metre cordon around Ecobiodiesel, which converts cooking oils into fuel, on the Billington Road Industrial Estate, just after 6.30am after two large vats erupted in flames.

Firefighters said an initial investigation indicated that a heater on one of the vats, stored close to the unit’s exit, was left on overnight.

Once the vat’s thermostat failed, the cooking oil tanker caught fire, with the flames quickly spreading to the building’s structure.

Up to seven appliances, including specialist hazardous chemical and foam units and a turntable ladder, were scrambled to the blaze, which devastated adjoining units in Forbes Court.

Firefighters were forced to break into a neighbouring air-conditioning business after reports that oxy-acetylene tanks were stored there.

Luckily the cylinders, like similar tanks at the nearby Ewbank factory, had not overheated as a result of the intense blaze.

Firefighters were also cautious as substantial quantities of methanol, which burns with an invisible flame, were also present on site.

Crews wearing breathing apparatus also battled to ensure that jets used to deal with the incident did not affect nearby watercourses.

Hundreds of workers were initially turned away at the entrance to the industrial estate, which houses Veka, DMC and a number of smaller traders.

Crews from Burnley, Nelson, Accrington and Blackburn, along with specialist appliances from Chorley, attended the scene. The cordon was lifted before 10am.

Plumes of smoke, resulting from the blaze, could be seen as far away as the M65, throughout the morning.

The company is a leading supplier of eco biofuels which has been looking to set up outlets to provide gas for cars over the past two years. No-one was available for comment.

Several neighbouring firms are believed to have given staff the day off as fire appliances were positioned across car parks, providing a water supply for the main turntable unit.

Station officer Aiden Fortune, a fire service investigator, said it appeared that the premises were locked and secured when crews first arrived, which would appear to rule out arson as a probable cause.

He added: “The fire is believed to have been started accidentally. There were two 500-litre containers, full of cooking oil.

“In order to thin out the oil, heaters are used and it would appear that one of these was left on overnight.

“The thermostat on one of the vats is thought to have failed at some point, causing the explosions which were heard.”