Pulau Bukom fire (2011)

On 28 September 2011, a fire broke out at an oil refinery owned by Royal Dutch Shell on Pulau Bukom. The blaze began near a system of pipelines carrying various petroleum products and lasted for 32 hours before being extinguished. The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) firefighters subsequently described it one of the most complex and intense fires they had ever faced.1

Built in 1961, the oil refinery is part of Shell’s Pulau Bukom Manufacturing Site and can process up to 500,000 barrels of crude oil per day. Besides refining crude oil, the complex also includes an 800,000-tonne-a-year ethylene cracker and a 155,000-tonne-a-year butadiene-extraction unit.2 It is the largest refinery wholly owned by Shell globally in terms of capacity, and a key supply and trading centre for Shell in Asia.3 The Pulau Bukom site is an integrated oil and petrochemicals complex, which houses facilities such as three crude distillation units (CDUs), a hydrocracker producing jet fuel and diesel among other products, an ethylene cracker and a butadiene extraction unit.4

On 28 September 2011, 1.15 pm, a fire broke out within an open area at the refinery known as Pump House 43, which comprised a network of pumps, valves and pipelines carrying gasoline, kerosene and other refined oil products.5 The refinery’s automatic pumps were activated to spread foam on the fire to deprive it of oxygen, while a drainage system also began to pump run-off liquids away from the fire and pipelines.6 Shell’s in-house team of 40 firefighters also continued foaming operations and fought the fire with water jets.7

The SCDF responded to a call about the fire at 1.18 pm8 and reached Pulau Bukom within 35 minutes with 100 firefighters and equipment including fire engines, fire bikes, a Red Rhino (light fire attack vehicle) and support vehicles.9 Together with Shell’s firefighters, the SCDF contained the blaze to a 176-metre-by-65-metre area. The SCDF also protected nearby storage tanks holding unspecified hydrocarbons by utilising water jets to cool them and prevent a pressure build-up.10

First surge
By 5.15 pm that same day, firefighters thought they had the fire under control, and Shell released a media statement to this effect.11 However, beneath the foam covering, the fire had spread and damaged more pipes. These pipes leaked more petroleum products and fed the fire further, causing a surge in the blaze at 6.35 pm. The SCDF’s director of operations Colonel Anwar Abdullah later said: “The fire was threatening to run out of control. We pulled people out in the nick of time before the fire really flared.” After the escalation of the fire, the firefighters withdrew from the site to regroup and reposition their water jets.12 No serious injuries were reported, although a firefighter sustained superficial injuries and five others suffered heat exhaustion and pulled muscles.13

In the evening, an SCDF operations centre was set up at the Pasir Panjang ferry terminal, while helicopters, navy fast craft and troops from the Singapore Armed Forces were put on standby.14 By nightfall, more than 100 firefighters, 13 fire engines and 21 support vehicles were fighting the blaze, which could be seen from the western areas of Singapore including Pasir Panjang, Redhill and Dover Road.15 By 8.30 pm, Shell had evacuated around 400 nonessential staff from the complex, maintaining 250 staff including its firefighting team on Pulau Bukom.16 Shell shut down a hydrocracker but its ethylene cracker remained operational.17

Second surge
Throughout the night, the firefighters had considerable success in reducing the scale of the fire and at 8 am, 29 September, a fresh batch of SCDF firefighters relieved their colleagues at the site. At 11.45 am, however, the fire surged again, and engulfed an area of the pump house containing liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). The surge knocked firefighters backwards, melted the tyres of four vehicles and badly damaged two fire engines.18

Because the LPG had begun leaking from ruptured pipes and was on fire, the firefighters had to seek a different strategy. While they had previously used foam and water, the firefighters switched to using only water to fight the flames and for boundary cooling operations to prevent an explosion. Seawater was continuously pumped into 23 water jets for this purpose.19 However, explosions were heard at the refinery around noon, while witnesses on the mainland saw black smoke and fireballs in the sky.20

The fire was later described as “complex and multi-dimensional” by Colonel Anwar, and added that the SCDF had never seen this type of fire previously.21 Shell’s experts were also unable to ascertain what was feeding the fire.22 At 7 pm, Shell began a progressive shutdown of its complex, including its three crude-oil distillation plants.23 The company also held a media conference with the SCDF, announcing that the fire was still burning and that they had not discovered its cause.24

Firefighters managed to extinguish the fire at 9.18 pm and remained on standby at the site, as there remained traces of fuel vapour with the potential of reigniting the fire.25 By the evening of 30 September, the SCDF “were certain that the supply lines had been cut off” and there were no more petroleum products feeding into the pump house. The SCDF handed over management of the site to Shell and began its withdrawal on 2 October.26 The company started a safety study of units adjacent to the fire, and concluded that these were not damaged.27

On 30 September, the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM’s) Occupational Safety and Health Division launched an investigation into the fire, including an examination of Shell’s safety framework.28 The preliminary findings from the investigation were that preparatory work for maintenance, which involved the draining of residual products from a pipeline by the use of a suction truck, could have sparked the blaze.29 Then-chairman of Shell, Lee Tzu Yang, who also headed the Workplace Safety and Health Council, took a temporary leave of absence from the council to avoid a conflict of interest with the inquiry.30

Shell’s shutdown of the refinery affected the supply of feedstock supplies such as naphtha, ethylene and middle distillates like kerosene and diesel to other companies.31 On 2 October, Shell confirmed that it had exercised the force majeure contractual clause for some of its customers, which allowed the company to be absolved from contractual obligations and liabilities because an extraordinary event had occurred.32 Analysts pointed out that the fire and shutdown had exposed a weakness in the integrated structure of Singapore’s petrochemical crackers, which are reliant on naphtha for feedstock, and called for alternative feedstocks such as LPG to be considered.33

Throughout October, Shell progressively restarted operations on Pulau Bukom, with the three crude-oil distillation units, hydrocracker and other units in operation by the end of the month.34 Shell had also lifted force majeure from the majority of its supply contracts by then.35 Shell returned as a seller to the middle distillates, fuel oil and naphtha markets in November, and the refinery had almost returned to full production by the end of December. The company estimated that the fire had cost around S$187 million in losses.36

In 2012, following MOM’s investigation, Shell was fined S$80,000 for lapses in workplace safety. The investigation identified lapses in three areas: flammable naphtha vapour had accumulated because of the naphtha drainage process; the use of plastic trays to collect naphtha, resulting in static charges that could have sparked the naphtha vapour; and the failure to provide gas monitors to detect dangerous levels of naphtha vapour.37


Alvin Chua

1. Jennani Durai, “‘The Fire Looked like a Tornado’,” Straits Times, 6 October 2011, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Winston Chai, “Fire Forces Evacuation at Shell’s Bukom Refinery,” Business Times, 29 September 2011, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Chai, “Fire Forces Evacuation at Shell’s Bukom Refinery”; Lin Wenjian, et al. “Fire at Shell’s Bukom Refinery,” Straits Times, 29 September 2011, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Chai, “Fire Forces Evacuation at Shell’s Bukom Refinery.”
5. Durai, “‘Fire Looked like a Tornado’.” 
6. Robin Chan, “Calm under Fire,” Straits Times, 9 October 2011, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Durai, “‘Fire Looked like a Tornado’.” 
8. Lin Wenjian and Jermyn Chow, “Water Being Used to Fight Fire,” Straits Times, 30 September 2011, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Tan Weizhen, “Firefighters Battle Pulau Bukom Refinery Blaze through the Night,” Today, 29 September 2011, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Durai, “‘Fire Looked like a Tornado’.” 
11. Lin, et al. “Fire at Shell’s Bukom Refinery”; Durai, “‘Fire Looked like a Tornado’.” 
12. Durai, “‘Fire Looked like a Tornado’.” 
13. Lin, et al. “Fire at Shell’s Bukom Refinery.”
14. Leong Wee Keat and Yvonne Chan, “Bukom Fire Extinguished,” Today, 30 September 2011, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Tan, Firefighters Battle Pulau Bukom.”
16. Durai, “‘Fire Looked like a Tornado’”; Lin, et al. “Fire at Shell’s Bukom Refinery.”
17. Chai, “Fire Forces Evacuation at Shell’s Bukom Refinery.”
18. Durai, “‘Fire Looked like a Tornado’.”  
19. Durai, “‘Fire Looked like a Tornado’.”  
20. Chai, “Fire Forces Evacuation at Shell’s Bukom Refinery.”
21. Durai, “‘Fire Looked like a Tornado’.”  
22. Chan, “Calm under Fire.” 
23. Leonard Lim, Amanda Tan and Jenanni Durai, “Shell Begins Shutdown,” Straits Times, 30 September 2011, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Durai, “‘Fire Looked like a Tornado’.”  
25. Jennani Durai and Jermyn Chow, “Govt to Probe Bukom Refinery Blaze,” Straits Times, 1 October 2011, 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Durai, “‘Fire Looked like a Tornado’.”  
27. Ronnie Lim, “Shell Restarts Some Bukom Plants after Checks,” Business Times, 11 October 2011, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Durai, “‘Fire Looked like a Tornado’”; Durai and Chow, “Govt to Probe Bukom Refinery Blaze.”
29. Jenanni Durai, “Preparation Work Caused Bukom Fire: MOM Probe,” Straits Times, 4 October 2011, 6 (From NewspaperSG); Durai, “‘Fire Looked like a Tornado’.”
30. Chan, “Calm under Fire.” 
31. Chan, “Calm under Fire.” 
32. Cheryl Ong, “Shell Moves to Absolve Itself of Liability on Some Supply Deals,” Straits Times, 3 October 2011, 1; Robin Chan, “Shell Refinery Fire: Counting the Losses,” Straits Times, 5 October 2011, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
33. Ronnie Lim, “Bukom Fire Provides Valuable Learning Points,” Business Times, 6 October 2011, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
34. Ronnie Lim, “Shell’s Pulau Bukom Refinery Almost Back to Normal,” Business Times, 24 November 2011, 4; “Shell Partially Restarts Refinery after Fire,” Today, 11 October 2011, 34. (From NewspaperSG)
35. Grace Chua, “Force Majeure Lifted on Most Contracts,” Straits Times, 1 November 2011, 14; Lim, Shell’s Pulau Bukom Refinery Almost Back to Normal.”
36. “Shell to Return Refinery to Full capacity in December,” Today, 28 October 2011, 58. (From NewspaperSG)
37. Ministry of Manpower, “Shell Fined $80,000 for 2011 Pulau Bukom Refinery Fire,” press release, 29 October 2012.  

The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic. 

Petroleum--Offshore storage--Singapore