FIGHTING THE HAZELWOOD MINE FIRE
In combatting the Hazelwood mine fire, GDF Suez personnel and contractors and the Country Fire Authority (CFA) were faced with the formidable task of extinguishing a huge fire that had an unlimited supply of fuel. That the CFA was able to develop and implement an effective suppression strategy and successfully extinguish the fire when it did, without interruption to Victoria’s power supply, is a tremendous achievement. GDF Suez personnel must also be acknowledged for their hard work in extremely difficult circumstances throughout the period the Hazelwood mine fire burned.
However, fire services and GDF Suez have a lack of readily available equipment, such as compressed air foam systems relevant to best practice brown coal firefighting. Fire services and GDF Suez recognise that acquisition of best available technology for firefighting in coal mines is an area in need of improvement.
GDF Suez was responsible for the initial response to the mine fire on 9 February 2014. GDF Suez was successful in keeping the Driffield fire from crossing the mine’s boundary at the Morwell River diversion. However, fire that did enter the Hazelwood mine quickly spread in the northern batters, the eastern batters, the south-eastern batters, and the mine floor. There were also multiple fires within the mine at grass level.
Mine personnel worked strategically to turn sprays on and off in the northern batters to create a fire-break between the worked out northern batters that were on fire and the western side of the northern batters near the operational areas of the mine. They were able to successfully defend the operational areas of the mine and the power station.
Despite these efforts, the initial response to the fire was inadequate in suppressing ember attack and containing spot fires that ignited in the mine at various locations on the afternoon of 9 February 2014.
Firefighting was significantly impeded by the fact that the reticulated fire services water system or ‘fire service network’ did not extend to large sections of the worked out areas of the Hazelwood mine where fires took hold.
By late afternoon on 9 February, firefighting efforts were further impeded by fire damage to the two SP AusNet 66kV power lines that run across the northern batters of the mine. This resulted in power loss to the two major water pumping stations, triggering a significant drop in water pressure in the fire service network. This not only inhibited the use of fixed water sprays, it hampered the ability to fill up fire tankers with water. Power loss also caused a temporary interruption to coal production and left the mine’s Emergency Command Centre in darkness and staff unable to use equipment such as CCTV monitors and computers.
At the time of the Hazelwood mine fire there were no internal back-up power supply generators at the Hazelwood mine. However, mine electricians and others worked hard to eventually return power to the mine.
The fires were so widespread by early evening on 9 February that firefighting in the worked out areas of the mine was considered too dangerous, and firefighting was limited to suppressing the fires at grass level.
Fire services took command of the firefighting that evening. CFA personnel described a number of problems when they were initially deployed to the Hazelwood mine, such as difficulties and delays in trying to access and navigate the mine.
Planning of a suppression strategy was undertaken across incident, regional and state levels, with GDF Suez personnel continuing to contribute to the firefighting effort, and providing the CFA with information and escorts to assist with navigating the mine.
Five days into the fire, work commenced on installing approximately eight kilometres of extra fire service pipework in the worked out areas of the Hazelwood mine in order to assist the suppression effort.
Following consultation with an expert reference group 10 days into the mine fire, a new fire suppression strategy was implemented. The new strategy involved incrementally suppressing fire in 100 metre segments. This strategy was ultimately successful.
Water (applied by appliances with the assistance of Sikorsky helicopters), compressed air foam and thermal imaging cameras, were all used with considerable success. The use of compressed air foam is not a standard firefighting method employed by Victorian fire services, so large compressed air foam system units (CAFS) were borrowed from Tasmania and New South Wales. The use of CAFS reduced smoke and ash, which was important given that Morwell is so close to the northern batters of the mine.
By 10 March 2014, the mine fire was declared under control. After 45 days of fighting the fire, the Fire Services Commissioner declared the Hazelwood mine fire ‘safe’ on 25 March 2014.
Emergency services and GDF Suez invested enormous resources into the suppression of the Hazelwood mine fire. Up to 80 GDF Suez personnel worked on day shifts and about 50 worked on night shifts over the course of the firefighting effort. GDF Suez also contributed significant firefighting equipment.
Fire services supplied around 200 firefighting appliances, including aircraft, tankers, pumpers, ladder platforms, CAFS units, thermal imaging cameras, command vehicles and support vehicles. More than 7,000 emergency services personnel were involved in firefighting at the Hazelwood mine during February and March 2014. Firefighting personnel were drawn from the CFA, Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB), Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI), State Emergency Service, Australian Capital Territory Fire and Rescue, New South Wales Fire and Rescue, Tasmanian Fire Services, Queensland Fire Service, GDF Suez and Air Services Australia.
Firefighting is discussed in detail in Chapter 2.3 of the report.
ADEQUACY AND EFFECTIVENESS OF THE STATE RESPONSE
The State was generally well prepared for the extreme fire weather conditions on 9 February 2014. Planning for the fire risks took place at state, regional and local levels.
However, the Board acknowledges that the Traralgon Incident Control Centre was put under significant pressure because a strategic decision was made at both regional and state levels not to set up the base Incident Control Centre in Yarram. That pressure was compounded by the slow delivery of requested additional firefighting resources. These resourcing issues left the Traralgon Incident Control Centre in the unenviable position of having to prepare for and deal with fire activity over a large area of Gippsland.
In light of the number of competing resource demands facing the State in the period 7 to 9 February 2014, the Board considers that the measures adopted by fire services were generally appropriate.
An Incident Emergency Management Team was formed to respond to local fire conditions prior to 9 February 2014. Members of the Incident Emergency Management Team included representatives from various support agencies, local government, businesses and the Central Gippsland Essential Industries Group (CGEIG) (of which GDF Suez is a member).
The Board heard evidence from the Incident Controller that on 8 February 2014, several computer models were produced showing the significant threat to the Hazelwood mine in the event that the Hernes Oak–McDonald’s Track fire broke its containment lines. One model was relayed to GDF Suez personnel via the CGEIG. Unfortunately GDF Suez did not understand the significance of this model.
The Board considers that the CFA responded quickly and effectively to the breakout of the Hernes Oak and Driffield fires. No properties were lost in Morwell. The CFA was able to prevent fire from crossing the Morwell River diversion and entering the operating area of the Hazelwood mine.
Where possible, CFA resources were sent to the mine to assist in asset protection. During the afternoon of 9 February 2014, that assistance was necessarily limited due to the other demands on the CFA’s firefighting resources.
In its submission to the Board, GDF Suez attributed part of the failure of the initial response to the Hazelwood mine fire to the limited firefighting assistance from fire services, and the demands on the CFA to attend to other fires in the Latrobe Valley.
The Board is satisfied that the way that emergency services allocated their resources to suppress fire on 9 February 2014 was consistent with the State Controller’s Strategic Priorities, where the protection of life is paramount.
However, there is potential to improve the efficiency of communication and resource use between emergency services and operators of essential industries infrastructure working together under one integrated incident management team during major fires.
After the recent experience of the Hazelwood mine fire, the Victorian Government is considering various reforms to emergency management planning to better facilitate a consistent response across both public and privately owned land, to better cater for complex land use, and to take account of the diverse hazards of specific industries and facilities, like the Hazelwood mine.
Further reforms that the Victorian Government has committed to relate specifically to engagement and integration of emergency planning and management with the coal mining sector. The Board affirms these commitments.
The adequacy and effectiveness of the State’s response to the Hazelwood mine fire is considered in Chapter 2.3 of the report.
ADEQUACY AND EFFECTIVENESS OF GDF SUEZ’S RESPONSE
The inability of GDF Suez to effectively suppress the Hazelwood mine fire during the initial stages was due in large part to the mine operator being inadequately prepared to manage the fire.
GDF Suez recognised the need for fire preparedness planning on 7 February 2014 upon the declaration of a Total Fire Ban for the area. Whilst fire plans were prepared, they were not updated once nearby bushfire started on the afternoon of 7 February 2014 and became a serious threat to the mine. Fire plans should have been reviewed and modified to reflect the changing and serious conditions.
The fire plans also relied on the CFA being able to promptly respond to a fire in the mine. In light of the extreme weather conditions in the period prior to the Hazelwood mine fire and the likely pressures the CFA would be under, GDF Suez should have more closely liaised with the CFA to understand its resourcing and the likely threat to the mine.
GDF Suez should also have revised its assessment of staffing levels and other protective measures it planned to implement over the weekend. A key principle for success in fire suppression is a fast determined first attack, but the resources available for first attack of the Hazelwood mine fire were insufficient to prevent the spread of fire inside the mine.
Once the Emergency Response Plan took effect, clear command and control structures were established. However, all but one of the GDF Suez personnel nominated as an Emergency Commander by the Emergency Response Plan were out of Morwell on a weekend break or holiday. The person asked to step into the role of the Emergency Commander during the Hazelwood mine fire was not designated that role in the Emergency Response Plan.
The Board acknowledges that several members of GDF Suez management, concerned about the impact of any fire on the mine, came into the mine before the fires took hold and were involved in key decision-making in the early afternoon of 9 February. GDF Suez also rapidly increased the number of personnel present at the mine to assist once the mine fire took hold.
Additional staff present at the mine prior to the outbreak of fire would have been beneficial to firefighting efforts. The Board affirms GDF Suez’s commitment to ensuring that more personnel are rostered on and additional contractors are available for dedicated fire protection duties on predicted extreme fire danger days.
GDF Suez personnel failed to activate the mine’s Emergency Response Plan until more than an hour after fire was first reported. Several consequences appear to have arisen from that initial failure.
There was no evidence that anyone within the mine notified the CFA of the fires by calling 000. Whilst calls were made to the local Incident Control Centre during the course of the afternoon on 9 February, it does not appear that any request for CFA resources was made until several hours after the fire started. Firefighting resources in the area were attending other fires and may not have been able to assist any earlier, but early intervention and support at State level could have enhanced the local response.
The adequacy and effectiveness of GDF Suez’s response to the Hazelwood mine fire is considered in Chapter 2.3 of the report.