Oil facility fire jeopardizes Cuba’s frail electric system
A man types on his cellphone near a huge plume of smoke rising from the Matanzas Supertanker Base as firefighters work to quell the blaze which began during a thunderstorm in Matanzas, Cuba, Monday, August 8, 2022. Cuban authorities say lightning struck a crude oil storage tank at the base, sparking a fire that sparked four explosions. (AP Photo/Ismael Francisco)

HAVANA, Cuba (AP) — A deadly fire that began at a large oil storage facility in western Cuba spread on Monday, threatening to plunge the island into a deeper energy crisis as it forced officials to shut down a key thermoelectric plant.

Flames around dawn enveloped a third tank that firefighters had tried to cool as they struggle to fight the massive blaze in the western province of Matanza that began just days after the government announced scheduled blackouts for the capital of Havana.

At least one person has died and 125 are injured, with another 14 reported missing ever since lighting struck one of the facility’s eight tanks on Friday night. A second tank caught fire on Saturday, triggering several explosions at the facility, which plays a key part in Cuba’s electric system.

“The risk we had announced happened, and the blaze of the second tank compromised the third one,” said Matanzas Governor Mario Sabines.

By late Monday, four tanks were compromised, Lieutenant Colonel Chief Alexander Ávalos of Cuba’s fire department told Televisión Cubana.

“The fire has taken on a greater magnitude,” he said.

Firefighters had sprayed water on the remaining tanks over the weekend to cool them but failed to stop the fire from spreading. On Monday afternoon, the government’s power company announced that the fire had forced the shut down a thermoelectric plant that provides power to the island’s western region after it ran out of water, according to the official Cubadebate website. No further details were immediately available.

The governments of Mexico and Venezuela have sent special teams to help extinguish the fire, with water cannons, planes and helicopters fighting the fire from several directions as military constructions specialists erected barriers to contain oil spills.

Local officials warned residents to use face masks or stay indoors given the billowing smoke enveloping the region that can be seen from the capital of Havana, located more than 65 miles (100 kilometers) away. Officials have warned that the cloud contains sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and other poisonous substances.

The majority of those injured were treated for burns and smoke inhalation, and five of them remain in critical condition. A total of 24 remain hospitalised. Over the weekend, authorities found the body of one firefighter as relatives of those still missing gathered at a hotel to await news about their loved ones.

Sabines and Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel said it was impossible to search for the missing firefighters given the roiling temperatures.

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