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Apartment fire in Melbourne’s Spencer Street prompts new fears over cladding

Blaze leaps several floors and required more than 80 firefighters to bring it under control

Eighty firefighters were deployed to a building in Melbourne’s Spencer Street on Monday morning to battle a blaze that has prompted fresh concerns about combustible cladding on apartment buildings.

The fire began shortly before 6am and shot up several floors of the apartment complex, prompting the Metropolitan Fire Brigade to upgrade the emergency.

The fire brigade said the fire had started on the 22nd floor and quickly moved up the outside of the tower to the 27th floor.

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Ambulance Victoria said paramedics had treated one man in his 20s for smoke inhalation. He was taken to Royal Melbourne hospital in a stable condition.

Victoria police were assisting with the evacuation and relocation of residents.

Dan Stephens, the chief officer for the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, said crews believed the building was clad in the same material as the Grenfell Tower in London, which caught fire in 2017 and killed 72 people.

“My understanding is that the building is cladded with aluminium composite materials, so the cladding that was on the Grenfell Tower,” he said.

Trent Curtin, the assistant chief officer of the brigade, said sprinklers had activated on four of the floors and contained the fire to the balcony and apartment.

Firefighters had undertaken an “internal fire attack”, fighting the fire directly inside the building.

“The fire escalated quite rapidly from the 22nd floor,” Curtin said. “We can assume, but can’t confirm, that the cladding escalated the speed of the fire.”

Fire safety inspectors, investigation specialists and the Melbourne city council municipal building surveyor are on site and working to determine the cause of the blaze.

Curtin said crews had already identified potential fire safety issues with the building, including that some residents had covered their smoke alarms with plastic.

“One of those issues is that occupants have been covering smoke alarms with plastic to stop them going off from cooking or false alarms,” he said. “There’s potentially others [fire safety issues] but we’re unclear at this stage.”

Curtin said crews had also encountered residents who refused to evacuate from the building.

The complex has 371 apartments and, at 10am, Curtin said crews were still struggling to get some people to leave. “Firefighters went floor to floor in the early stages of the fire,” he said. “Even with a notification to evacuate, some people refused to evacuate.”

Spencer Street was initially closed in both directions and a spokesman for the fire brigade said crews had been able to bring the fire under control by 7am.

By 10 am the street had reopened in a northbound direction. The fire brigade expects crews to be on site for most of the day.

The Age was reporting that pieces of the building could be seen falling from the complex on the corner of Bourke and Spencer streets.

“Crews were alerted to the blaze at 5.43am and the incident was quickly upgraded after the building was noted to have combustible cladding,” the Metropolitan Fire Brigade said in an initial statement.

“Firefighters in breathing apparatus are attacking the fire internally and aerial appliances including the latter platform and teleboom are attacking the fire externally.”

state audit found that about 1,400 planning permits may have had non-compliant cladding and about 200 buildings had combustible cladding.

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