Overview

This Chapter examines efforts to fight the fire in the Hazelwood mine after it ignited on 9 February 2014 and over the following 45 days until it was declared safe.

Under its Terms of Reference, the Board of Inquiry must report on the adequacy and effectiveness of the response to the Hazelwood mine fire by GDF Suez, emergency services and other relevant government agencies.

This Chapter considers the firefighting response in three phases – the initial response on 9 February 2014, firefighting between 10 and 18 February 2014, and the revised fire suppression strategy implemented from 19 February 2014.

Fire services responded to the Hernes Oak and Driffield fires effectively and successfully prevented the Hernes Oak fire from damaging property in Morwell and the Driffield fire from entering the mine (together with GDF Suez personnel).

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 spot into the 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 were successful in preventing the spread of the fire into the operating areas of the mine.

Firefighting was impeded because the GDF Suez reticulated fire services water system was not installed, or was only installed to a limited extent, in areas where the fire took hold. This meant that there were significant areas of the mine that were unable to be prepared or ‘wet down’ prior to the fire entering the mine and suppressed by water sprays.

By late afternoon, firefighting efforts were further impeded by the loss of power, which affected the GDF Suez reticulated fire services water system and the Emergency Command Centre. The fires were so widespread by early evening 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.

The second phase of firefighting was led by fire services. Planning of a suppression strategy was undertaken across incident, regional and state levels, with GDF Suez playing a significant role. During this phase of firefighting, the mine fire was declared a HazMat incident. This phase saw the commencement of the expansion of the existing reticulated fire services water system as part of suppression efforts.

During the third phase of the firefighting effort, a new fire suppression strategy was implemented, following consultation with an expert reference group. This strategy was ultimately successful.

The Board heard evidence from GDF Suez employees about their experiences on 9 February 2014 and their involvement in firefighting over the following weeks. The Board also heard evidence from fire services personnel, including the various Incident Controllers in charge of suppression efforts over the duration of the fire. CFA volunteers also gave evidence to the Board about their experiences and observations in fighting the mine fire on 9 February 2014.

The Board heard from expert witnesses Mr Roderic Incoll, Bushfire Risk Consultant, and Professor David Cliff, Professor of Occupational Health and Safety in the Minerals Industry and Director of the Minerals Industry Safety and Health Centre, University of Queensland. Both expert witnesses gave evidence that was critical of the initial suppression activities.

The Board had regard to the measures adopted for preparing for the risk of the mine fire by GDF Suez, including preparing Hazelwood Mine Fire Preparedness and Mitigation Plans, wetting down the mine and creating fire-breaks. The Board also considered measures taken by the State in the context of resourcing issues and other demands on the State at the time the mine fire took hold. These issues are discussed in more detail in Chapter 2.2 Preparing for fire.

The Board commends all firefighters who worked under difficult conditions to protect Hazelwood mine assets and prevent fire spreading into the operational area of the mine. The Board commends fire services for protecting the community in the Latrobe Valley from the fire on 9 February 2014 and for leading the successful suppression of the mine fire.

The Board concludes that the initial efforts of GDF Suez to suppress the fires in the northern, eastern and south-eastern batters and on the mine floor were ineffective, due in large part to the mine operator being inadequately prepared for the fire. Areas of particular concern include the limitations of the reticulated fire services water system, GDF Suez’s resourcing for fire prevention and suppression, issues with the activation of GDF Suez’s Emergency Response Plan, and power failures affecting water supply and the Emergency Command Centre.

The Board further concludes that whilst the State and GDF Suez improved their knowledge about best practice brown coal mine firefighting during the mine fire, both the State and GDF Suez remain without appropriate firefighting equipment that is readily available.

Finally, the Board concludes that the firefighting efforts could have been enhanced and greater effectiveness achieved, if the State and GDF Suez had a more integrated approach to firefighting.