Implementation of fire planning by the State

EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT IN FEBRUARY 2014

As explained in Chapter 2.1 Origin and circumstances of the Hazelwood mine fire, the worst fire conditions since Black Saturday were predicted on the weekend of 8 and 9 February 2014. There were multiple fires already going across the State of Victoria. Planning for the fire risks took place at state, regional and incident levels.

Prior to and during the Hazelwood mine fire, Mr Lapsley assumed the role of State Controller working from the State Control Centre in Melbourne.127 On or about 6 February 2014, Mr Lapsley appointed two Deputy State Controllers to assist in the management of metropolitan and rural fires in Victoria.128

The State Emergency Management Team met daily or twice daily from 6 February 2014 until 20 February 2014 and then every three days until 24 March 2014.129 The State Control Team, comprising the chief officers of fire agencies, the Chief Health Officer, the Victoria Police State Emergency Response Officer, and the Director of Emergency Management Health and Human Services, met daily in the weeks leading up to the weekend of 8 and 9 February 2014.130

The State Control Centre was operating at the highest level of readiness.131 It regularly produced various planning documents and reports including Fire Weather Briefings, State Operational Briefs and State Situation Reports.132

All eight regional control centres, including the Traralgon Regional Control Centre, were established or progressively established according to local conditions. The Traralgon Regional Controller for day shifts on 7 to 9 February 2014 was Mr Bryan Russell.133

Of the 38 Incident Control Centres around Victoria, 34 Incident Control Centres were either operating or would be established because of state-wide fire conditions.134 Around 8 pm on 7 February 2014, the Traralgon Incident Control Centre was established as a Level 3 Incident Control Centre. It was not staffed overnight. Mr Jeremiah was appointed as Incident Controller for the day shifts from 8 to 12 February 2014.135 Mr Jeremiah is an extremely experienced Incident Controller, having been operating at the highest level of accreditation (Level 3) for approximately 25 years.136

The Traralgon Incident Control Centre was staffed pursuant to Standard Operating Procedure J2.03 and was supported by an Air Operations Manager and Air Base Manager based in the Traralgon Regional Control Centre. Mr Jeremiah indicated that the Traralgon Incident Control Centre would usually be staffed with more personnel but resources were in high demand.137 Contrary to Standard Operating Procedure J2.03, no base Incident Management Teams were set up in Ellinbank, Yarram, Noojee and Erica. Mr Jeremiah explained that as resources were stretched only Leongatha had a base Incident Management Team in place that weekend. As a consequence, the Traralgon Incident Control Centre was managing a much larger area during the period 7 to 9 February 2014.138

Mr Lapsley informed the Board that decisions were made at both regional and state levels that several Incident Management Teams would not be established on the weekend of 8 and 9 February 2014. Mr Lapsley indicated that workarounds were put in place which involved the Traralgon Incident Control Centre taking control over the greater area.139

From 8 February 2014, Mr Jeremiah was the Incident Controller acting as Chair of the Incident Emergency Management Team, whose members included the CGEIG and Hancock Victorian Plantations Pty Ltd.140

Resourcing for fire response in February 2014

CFA firefighting resources were ready and on alert state-wide during February 2014. In the Latrobe Valley, DEPI resources were at lower levels of availability because of demands for firefighting at existing fires, particularly in East Gippsland. Cross-agency arrangements were in place so that the MFB could backfill CFA stations after the CFA were called out to a fire. In addition, 119 interstate and international firefighters and incident management personnel had been called in to assist with the fire response.141

Additional aircraft were made ready to supplement Victoria’s 42 aircraft, bringing the number of available aircraft to 54. Nine helicopters and five water bombers, plus six aircraft provided by New South Wales were being used to suppress fires in the Gippsand area. Aerial surveying was also occurring with additional aircraft.142

PLANNING FOR AND RESPONDING TO THE HERNES OAK–MCDONALD’S TRACK FIRE

On 7 February 2014, the CFA responded to the Hernes Oak–McDonald’s Track fire with five local brigades, an additional six tankers and two aircraft. The fire was managed from the Local Control Facility at Churchill.143

On 8 February 2014, the Hernes Oak–McDonald’s Track fire was divided into two sectors, the south-west area of the fire and the north-east end of the fire on the opposite side of the Princes Freeway. One division commander and two sector commanders were at the fireground. Local CFA resources were deployed to the two sectors.144

Over the course of the day, the Traralgon Regional Controller and the Traralgon Incident Controller actively managed the situation around them by regular meetings and telephone conferences within their own teams, with each other and with the State Control Centre.145

During the day, the State Control Centre produced multiple Phoenix Rapidfire models, which made predictions about the likely spread of the Hernes Oak–McDonald’s Track fire. The first series of models were for the spread of the fire on 8 February 2014. Mr Jeremiah assessed that the likelihood of the Hernes Oak–McDonald’s Track fire breaking its containment lines on 8 February 2014 was low, but if it did, the consequences would be high to catastrophic because of its proximity to the Latrobe Valley mines, Princes Freeway, the Gippsland railway and the township of Morwell.146

At some time during the afternoon, Mr Jeremiah and his team briefed the CGEIG on the potential bushfire threat associated with the Hernes Oak–McDonald’s Track fire to local essential industry operators, including the Hazelwood mine. Mr Jeremiah gave evidence to the Board that his team provided copies of Phoenix Rapidfire models showing the potential spread of the fire into the Hazelwood mine to the Chair of the CGEIG.147

A further Phoenix Rapidfire model was sent to the Chair of CGEIG by email at 4.24 pm on 8 February 2014.148 This model appeared to be a prediction of fire spreading overnight on 9 February 2014. This model was then forwarded to GDF Suez, as discussed later in this Chapter.

Based on his past experience, Mr Jeremiah expected that this information would be passed on to CGEIG members, and in particular ‘that those entities needed to take this threat seriously.’149

At around 4 pm, Mr Jeremiah requested additional resources from the Regional Controller to be pre-positioned in the Latrobe Valley, namely three strike teams and two heavy helicopters.150 Two strike teams were made available on Saturday evening 8 February 2014 and two helicopters were deployed and arrived by midday on Sunday 9 February 2014.151 Mr Lapsley gave evidence that the reason the aircraft were not sent earlier, in accordance with Mr Jeremiah’s request, was because the Victorian fleet had to be reshuffled to make sure that Mr Jeremiah got what he needed.152

At some time later in the day but before 6 pm on 8 February 2014, Mr Jeremiah was provided with additional Phoenix Rapidfire modelling, which showed the Hernes Oak–McDonald’s Track fire potentially spreading during the early hours of Sunday morning 9 February 2014 into a community south-west of Hernes Oak. Other Phoenix Rapidfire models produced documented the likely spread of the Hernes Oak–McDonald’s Track fire at various times on 9 February 2014, assuming a break in the containment lines.153

Mr Jeremiah attached two of the Phoenix Rapidfire models to his witness statement, which showed the fire spread at 9 am and 11 am on 9 February 2014. Mr Jeremiah explained that the time refers to the commencement of the fire spread and the image captures the fire spread over a two-hour period.154 These models did not reach GDF Suez personnel. It is unclear from the evidence why this did not occur.

Around 6 pm on 8 February 2014, Mr Jeremiah recommended the evacuation of approximately 300 residents in the Hernes Oak, Coalville and Driffield areas west of the Strzelecki Highway, based on his assessment of risks if the fire escaped containment lines in a way simulated by the Phoenix Rapidfire models. The evacuation was coordinated by the Traralgon Incident Control Centre and successfully carried out by Victoria Police and the SES.155

On 9 February 2014, the State Control Centre issued a briefing indicating that there were hotspots in the south-east corner of the Hernes Oak fire, that there was potential for the fire to impact on two open cut mines and that it was drawing up an evacuation plan for Morwell.156 The briefing was given to the Traralgon Incident Control Centre.

On 9 February 2014, the containment and patrolling of the Hernes Oak–McDonald’s Track fire continued.157 Two strike teams were working on the fire158 and four aircraft were allocated to the fire.159 Existing roads and waterways were providing natural barriers to fire spread.160

At approximately 10.15 am on 9 February 2014, a fire started near Jack River. Jack River is approximately 45 kilometres south-east of Morwell.161 This fire posed an immediate threat to life and property near Yarram. Due to the resourcing issues discussed above, Mr Jeremiah was designated the Incident Controller for this fire. As the Hernes Oak–McDonald’s Track fire was contained, Mr Jeremiah prioritised the Jack River fire and diverted some of the aircraft pre-positioned to fight the Hernes Oak–McDonald’s Track fire to form part of the eight aircraft dispatched to fight the Jack River fire.162 The Jack River fire spread to cover about 1,800 hectares by the end of the day,163 and eventually covered approximately 2,900 hectares.164

At approximately 1.15 pm on 9 February 2014, the Hernes Oak–McDonald’s Track fire broke containment lines on the north-eastern corner, near the Princes Freeway. The two CFA strike teams were not able to stop the fire. Mr Jeremiah stated:

It was moving so quickly alongside and between the railway line and Princes highway [sic] that it was unsafe to directly attack the head of the fire. At this stage, my focus was on protecting the fire crews on the ground and protecting the people of Morwell, who were directly in the line of, and being impacted by the Hernes Oak–McDonald’s Track fire….165

Mr Jeremiah gave evidence to the Board that according to the State Controller’s Strategic Priorities it was also a priority to protect the Australian Paper Manufacturers Maryvale pulp mill, the Maryvale Private Hospital, the Gippsland Water Factory and the Yallourn and Hazelwood power stations.166 Due to the pace of the fire, Mr Jeremiah did not have time to order an evacuation of the township of Morwell.167

Whilst Mr Jeremiah gave evidence that he was not in a position to order an evacuation on the afternoon of 9 February 2014, Mr Lance King, Coordinator of Emergency Management at Latrobe City Council, together with Senior Sergeant Peter Fuzinato of Victoria Police, directed the evacuation of residents from the western border of Morwell. Mr Jeremiah had contacted Mr King before the Hernes Oak–McDonald’s Track fire had broken its containment lines, and asked him to prepare an evacuation plan with Senior Sergeant Fuzinato. As that plan was in place at the time that the fire broke containment lines, Mr King and Senior Sergeant Fuzinato were able to carry out the evacuation successfully.168

Shortly before 4 pm on 9 February 2014, a State Emergency Warning System warning was issued for Morwell.169

From 5.30 pm on 9 February 2014, Mr Steven Warrington, a Deputy Chief Officer with the CFA, was appointed as Deputy Regional Controller (later known as Regional Controller (Mines)). Mr Warrington explained that the role of Regional Controller (Mines) was created specifically for the purpose of providing an additional layer of incident management expertise and resources in relation to the mine fire and the fire threats that existed at Yallourn and Maryvale.170