Australia — Authorities knew coal mines could come under threat as Victoria faced the worst bushfire conditions since Black Saturday but firefighting aircraft were needed elsewhere in the state, an inquiry has heard.
Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley says firefighting aircraft requested to be in Gippsland for first light on February 9 did not arrive until late morning because they were needed in the state’s west.
‘We had to take into account the risk in the west of the state,’ Mr Lapsley told an inquiry into the Hazelwood coal mine fire on Monday.
‘We did our darnedest to make sure the incident controller got what he needed and by reshuffling the state fleet we were able to do that.
‘They weren’t there until late morning or close to lunchtime.’
The blaze in a disused section of the Hazelwood open-cut mine burned for 45 days and forced some residents to leave as it shrouded the nearby town of Morwell in smoke and ash for six weeks.
It started on Sunday February 9 when Victoria faced its worst bushfire conditions since the Black Saturday bushfires that killed 173 people in February 2009.
The cause is being examined as part of the inquiry but Mr Lapsley said it is believed to have been sparked by bushfires burning in the area. Authorities knew on Saturday the Latrobe Valley mines could be affected by the fires, Mr Lapsley said.
He said authorities discussed on the Saturday morning that an existing bushfire, although contained, had potential.
‘If it had bad conditions on the Sunday it had potential to move to Morwell and could impact on both the Morwell and Hazelwood mines,’ Mr Lapsley said.
The bushfire was under control until the Sunday, he said.
Counsel assisting the inquiry Melinda Richards asked if the Hazelwood fire was possibly caused by a hot spot within the mine.
Mr Lapsley said it was a possibility, but said it would have been an offence if mine operators GDF Suez had failed to report this.
‘We’ve taken the assumption it has been spotting into the mine,’ Mr Lapsley said.
Mr Lapsley was also questioned about the use of water bombing at the mine after a 2005 review of a coal mine fire found the technique made that fire worse.
The inquiry heard there were four other fires at the mine in the past decade, all of which triggered reviews.
Mr Lapsley said different aircraft were used in this year’s blaze.
He said what came out of the reviews around 2005/2006 was about rotary aircraft that had tanks.
‘It’s a different machine, it’s a different helicopter, it’s got different equipment,’ he said of aircraft used to fight the fire over February and March.