• Kyodo

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Continuing aftershocks in Hokkaido sparked another fire at an oil refinery in Tomakomai on Sunday, while the search continued for people missing since the region was hit by massive earthquakes Friday.

A tank containing naphtha caught fire Sunday at Idemitsu Kosan Co.’s oil refinery in the southern Hokkaido city.

The fire broke out at 10:36 a.m. after vibrations from a series of earthquakes loosened the lid of the 30,000-kiloliter tank and some of the fluid leaked out, Idemitsu officials and firefighters said.

The refiner put retardants on the spill, but some of the naphtha apparently vaporized and caught fire when exposed to air, the firefighters said. Naphtha is a highly volatile liquid.

Although no casualties were reported, Idemitsu officials said the blaze could continue through Monday morning.

Idemitsu said it failed to report to the local fire department that the cover of the tank had been shaken open in Friday’s quakes.

The company officials also said that more than 20 out of about 100 tanks at the oil refinery suffered damage, including small fractures, on Friday. Oil is found to have leaked from four.

Earthquakes also forced open the lids on two kerosene tanks at the facility.

According to Idemitsu, the naphtha tank is 24 meters tall and 42 meters in diameter.

Two earthquakes with magnitudes of 8.0 and 7.1 on the Richter scale struck southeastern Hokkaido early Friday. The quakes injured more than 500 people, and there have been several aftershocks.

Immediately after the earthquakes Friday, a fire broke out in a petroleum tank in the same Idemitsu refinery 200 meters from the naphtha tank.

The latest fire started after police and firefighters investigated the refinery Saturday.

Since February 2000, the refinery has had five fires.

“This is the fifth fire. I’m speechless,” said Fumiko Aoki, 56, who lives nearby. “I believe it does not have proper fire prevention measures.”

Meanwhile, the search continued Sunday for missing people, but Masajiro Yoshida, 69, and Noriyuki Tsuda, 66, who disappeared near the estuary of the Tokachi River in the town of Toyokoro after Friday’s temblors, were still unaccounted for despite a search effort by about 270 police and residents.

On Sunday, Hokkaido police widened the area of the search to 7.5 km from the river’s mouth, fearing the pair may have been swept away by a tsunami that ascended the river.

Also, the family of a man from Obihiro, central Hokkaido, reported to police on Sunday that he had been missing since he went fishing early Friday.

According to the Hokkaido Prefectural Police, the number of people hurt in Friday’s quakes has reached 590, including 45 with serious injuries.

At 7:23 a.m. Sunday, a moderately strong aftershock registered 4 on the Japanese scale of 7 in the coastal town of Urakawa, one of the municipalities most severely hit in Friday’s quakes.

The Meteorological Agency called for continued vigilance, warning that there is a 50 percent risk of an aftershock of magnitude 6 or higher hitting Hokkaido within seven days.

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