Mine fire will burn underground

The Hazelwood mine fire will continue to burn underground after emergency services hand fire control responsibility over to mine manager GDF SUEZ Australian Energy, the incident controller has revealed.

While the depth of the fire currently burning on two separate coal faces in Hazelwood’s disused open cut is unclear, incident controller Bob Barry said it would continue to burn within the batter after the surface blaze had been extinguished.

“We will take care of the surface and extinguish to the levels that we can, but we are not going to totally put out this fire… some pockets will not be extinguished until they are dug out,” Mr Barry said.

“Until then it will be managed by the mine as part of their normal business – we will help them put their industrial suppression systems in place, (after which the fire’s management) will become part of their normal work operations.”

The revelation comes as fire crews brace for a ‘spike day’ in weather conditions tomorrow, with the Bureau of Meteorology predicting a top of 33 degrees and winds of up to 35 kilometres per hour.

“Those conditions are not going to be kind to us – so we’ve been planning for that and have been putting contingencies in place, and not just for the fire in the mine, we need to stop this thing from spreading, so we are resourcing that today to make sure we are ready,” Mr Barry said.

While extinguishment gains of up to 70 per cent had been made in parts of the fire zone as of Friday, a firefighter exclusion zone has been set up around parts of the southern batter fire where a 200-metre crack appeared on Thursday.

For a firefight where “water is king”, containment efforts have been hamstrung by a lack of supply due to limited water mains infrastructure in the affected section of the mine, and more recently, the water holding capacity of the mine itself.

With a network of storm water pondages in the mine’s basin reaching capacity, the firefight has became a delicate balancing act of water in – water out, where industrial pumping equipment redirecting water to other sections of the mine has become the beating heart of the operation.

A strategy review yesterday morning saw firefight priority shift to the northern batter blaze, which Mr Barry said was the main cause of the problematic smoke fallout for the Morwell community.

“Every time the wind goes to south westerly the smoke plume (from the northern batter) comes up over the face and stays at low altitude in the community, impacting into the industrial area and greater Morwell,” Mr Barry said.

“(Smoke) from the southern batter drifts further to the east and rises more rapidly, which is to do with influence of wind in the mine itself… so that smoke doesn’t have as great an effect on Morwell as the northern batter.”

However Mr Barry said limited progress had been made reducing the size of the northern blaze due to high concentrations of carbon monoxide in that area of the mine.

Attempts to extend a water main to the northern batter frontline were halted on Saturday due to high localised CO levels in the strategic work zone, before work recommenced yesterday.

“The eastern end of the northern batter is extremely hot and posing us some problems, so we’ve had the aerial bombing in there (yesterday) to complete the laying of water supplies,” Mr Barry said.

“This is extremely complex – we need a strategy in place to engage a second strategy and a third, and if one of the loops drops out then it throws everything off track.

“The strategy is to slowly work on putting in water and sprinklers on the northern batter, then we will move appliances back to the southern batter when the northern batter is looking after itself.”

Meanwhile the arrival of specialised compressed air foam units from Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory last week provided welcome supplementary support, with the ability to create a thick layer blanketing the fire.

While deputy incident controller Alan Quinton said the inhospitable working conditions were taking their toll on firefighter morale last week, infra-red line scans detailing progressive containment gains had improved the mood on site.

“The scans quite clearly show how much improvement we’ve made but it doesn’t feel like that to the community who are still suffering in the smoke, but we are slowly winning this thing,” Mr Quinton said.

“You come here for your shift and see that it’s still a smoky old mine hole that you are going down into that doesn’t appear to be any different, but when we can show them (the line scan) it certainly makes a big difference.

“It needs to be said, there is an outstanding effort our staff and volunteers are putting in here – there are 200 to 250 people per day going through the mine (on two hour shifts) – there is a huge effort throughout the state and beyond going into this.

“But this firefight is not about putting in another 50 trucks and 200 people onto it … we can continue bombing it, but by the time bombers go to pick up the next load the water’s evaporated – it’s like the old (saying) eating an elephant, we are just taking this thing bite by bite.”