The Hazelwood mine fire

HAZELWOOD MINE

To understand the impact of the fire in the Hazelwood mine, it is first necessary to understand the mine itself and its geography.

The main entrance to the Hazelwood mine and Power Station is located on Brodribb Road, south of Morwell. The mine is bordered by the Princes Freeway (to its north), the Strzelecki Highway (to its north and west), the Morwell River diversion (to its west), and the Hazelwood pondage (to its south). The mine licence area currently covers approximately 3,138 hectares, with the open cut covering an area of about 1,165 hectares. The perimeter of the open cut is over 18 kilometres in length.51

The worked out areas of the mine include parts of the mine called the northern, eastern and south-eastern batters. The operating area of the mine is on the current western batters. A batter is the individual near-vertical coal face on a 45 degree angle from the floor of the mine.52 The batters are labelled 1 level, 3 level, 5 level and 7 level, with 1 level being grass level at to the top of the mine and 7 level being at the bottom of the mine.53 Between the batter levels sit benches and berms. Berms are relatively flat surfaces created in batters between working levels to stabilise the batter or intercept fretted material. Benches are horizontal flat surfaces created by the individual working levels.54 The coal seam is naturally covered with overburden, which is made up of clay, gravel and soil. The overburden is removed in the mining process.55 There are overburden dumps on the mine floor and external to the open cut.

FIRE HOLES

Some previous fires at the Hazelwood mine have been caused by fire holes. Fire holes occur naturally in the mine and are areas of heat within coal seams under the earth. As coal is fractious, fissures are created within the seams, allowing oxygen to reach a hot spot and ignite a fire.56

EXTENT OF THE FIRE

The extent of the Hazelwood mine fire can be assessed by considering the three figures below.

Figure 2.8 is a diagram prepared by Mr Ross Male, CFA Division Commander based at the Hazelwood mine overnight on 9 February 2014. It shows the three sectors of fire that ignited in the mine on 9 February 2014 and that were not quickly put out (albeit that the diagram is inaccurate in so far as it shows the area on fire in the northern batters). The location of ‘the Knuckle’, ‘Old Faithful’ fire hole (discussed below) and the operating area have been added to the map to assist the reader.

Figure 2.9 is an infra-red scan taken on 11 February 2014 showing the fires in the mine depicted by the red colouring.

Figure 2.10 shows the final extent of the Hernes Oak-McDonald’s Track, Hernes Oak, Driffield and Hazelwood mine fires.

Figure 2.8 Diagram of the Hazelwood mine fire as at 7 am on 10 February 201457

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Figure 2.9 Infra-red line scan which identified the extent of the fires in the mine on 11 February 201458

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Figure 2.10 Extent of Hernes Oak and Driffield fires59

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INITIAL OBSERVATIONS OF THE MINE FIRE

The Board heard direct accounts from several GDF Suez personnel of sightings of embers and fires within the mine. Photographs, logs, notes and videos recorded by various mine personnel support these accounts.

In considering the timeline of events on 9 February 2014, the Board has taken into account the evidence where the time was actually recorded (through digital photographs and contemporaneous notes), and considers that all other time references from personal recollection are an approximate ‘best recollection’ given the extreme circumstances faced that day.

The first observation of embers spotting into the mine was around 1.45 pm on 9 February 2014. Mr James Mauger, GDF Suez 1×7 Operator, observed embers travelling over his head into the mine from his position at the western boundary of the mine.60

The first recorded fire within the mine was close to what is known as ‘the Knuckle’. Several GDF Suez personnel noticed this fire.61

Following this first sighting of fire in the mine, a number of mine personnel observed spot fires at 5 level in the northern batters and in the overburden dump in the mine floor between about 2 pm and 2.30 pm.62

The initial sighting of the fire in the northern batters was approximately 300 metres west of a clay-capped fire hole, known as ‘Old Faithful’ as shown in Figure 2.11. Mr Shanahan identified the clay capped fire hole by reference to the light coloured clay area which runs on an angle up from 5 level of the northern batters which is circled in Figure 2.11.

Figure 2.11 Fire at the northern batters at 2.57 pm on 9 February 201463
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This photograph was taken at 2.57 pm on 9 February 2014 from the western end of the northern batters, looking to the east. It shows fire on 3 level of the northern batters being doused with orange fire retardant by a water bomber, and smoke on 5 level below. The clay-capped fire hole known as “Old Faithful” is circled.

SPREAD OF THE MINE FIRE

The fires in the mine, once started, spread rapidly and extensively. The main factor responsible for that spread was the wind. For several hours a strong south-westerly wind drove the spread. The effect of that wind is visually apparent from Figure 2.6 above.

A sample of records from the Latrobe Airport weather station on 9 February 2014 showing times, and wind direction, speed and gusts is contained in Figure 2.12.64

Figure 2.12 Wind records from the Latrobe Airport on 9 February 2014

Time (pm)

Wind direction

Wind speed (km/h)

Wind gust (km/h)

12.00 NW 33 50
1.00 NW 37 57
2.00 SW 50 74
3.00 SW 52 67
4.00 SW 48 67
5.00 WSW 54 67
6.00 WSW 48 63
7.00 WSW 41 56
8.00 WSW 35 44
9.00 WSW 24 35
10.00 W 19 24
Figure 2.13 Fire burning beneath the power poles in the northern batters at 3.20 pm on 9 February 201465

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This image shows fire burning beneath power poles on 3 level of the northern batters at 3.20 pm. Mr Mauger took this photograph looking towards the power station in a south-easterly direction.

From approximately 2.30 pm on 9 February 2014, GDF Suez personnel observed the fire in the northern batters had spread from 5 level to 1 level and was burning power poles on the northern batters.66 Mr Mauger estimated that it took 50 minutes from the time that he first saw the fire in the northern batters for all levels of the batters to ignite.67

By around 4 pm, fire on the floor of the mine near the overburden dump area was established.68 There were also reports of spot fires in the operating area of the mine around this time.69 The series of photographs in Figure 2.14 and 2.15 below document the fire on the northern batters at 4.24 pm and 4.27 pm.

Figure 2.14 Photograph of the northern batters taken in an easterly direction by Mr Shanahan at approximately 4.24 pm on 9 February 201470

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Figure 2.15 Photograph of the northern batters taken in an easterly direction by Mr Shanahan at approximately 4.27 pm on 9 February 201471

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By late afternoon, the fire in the south-eastern batters was extensive and posed a threat (through spotting) to the grass level above, and to the M690 conveyor (a key part of the mine’s infrastructure).72 In the early evening, GDF Suez personnel reported that fire had spotted out of the eastern batters and caused a grass fire between the mine and Energy Brix. This led to damage to the M690 conveyor and an Energy Brix conveyor.73

Fire was widespread in the Hazelwood mine by early evening on 9 February 2014.74 Photographs taken by Mr Doug Steley, CFA Volunteer, show the extent of the fire overnight and in the morning (see Figures 2.16 and 2.17).

Figure 2.16 Fire in the south-eastern batters at 1.45 am on 10 February 201475

8101_Figure_2.16_opt This photograph was taken by Mr Steley at 1.45 am on 10 February 2014 from the south-eastern batters. It shows fire in the south-eastern batters in the foreground, and the northern batters alight in the background. The city lights of Morwell are visible in the distant background.

Figure 2.17 Mine fire in the northern batters at 7.40 am on 10 February 201476

8101_Figure_2.17_opt This photograph was taken by Mr Steley at approximately 7.40 am on 10 February 2014. Mr Steley was driving across the mine floor facing towards the northern batters.