Firefighters battle to protect Melbourne’s major electricity transmission

Firefighters battle to protect Melbourne’s major electricity transmission

31 January 2009

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Australia — Up to 20 homes around the Victorian township of Boolarra have been lost in bushfires that have razed more than 6,000 hectares in three days and are now threatening a major power transmission line.

Premier John Brumby said fire crews were “throwing everything they can” at the fire, in Victoria’s east.

Mr Brumby said 17 homes had been lost and authorities were expecting to find more.

Fire authorities working to confirm property losses on Saturday put the official number of homes lost at eight while a further 12 outbuildings were destroyed.

About 230 firefighters worked on Saturday to build containment lines and prevent the fire from damaging a major transmission line supplying electricity to Melbourne.

There were also concerns about the proximity of the fire to the Latrobe Valley open cut coal mine and Hazelwood power station.

The fire was burning about two kilometres from the power lines on Saturday afternoon.

Loy Yang Power chief executive Ian Nethercote said the Latrobe Valley’s generators were on high alert.

“Our major concern at the moment is whether or not the fire encroaches on to some of the transmission lines and therefore has perhaps some impact on our ability to keep generation going to the grid,” Mr Nethercote told the ABC.

If the power lines are burned or shorted by the smoke, Melbourne’s power supply would be “seriously affected”, a government spokeswoman told the Sunday Herald Sun this afternoon.

Mr Brumby said the biggest issue was smoke, which could cause the system to short out.

“It’s in the hands of the gods really as to whether the smoke moves across and creates that problem,” he told reporters in Churchill.

Country Fire Authority (CFA) strike teams spent the day patrolling the blackened township of Boolarra extinguishing spot fires.

Incident controller Mike Owen said the fires, which started south of Morwell in the Latrobe Valley on Thursday, were the work of arsonists.

“The fires are suspicious and police are investigating,” he told reporters at the incident control centre in Traralgon on Saturday.

“We believe we have an active fire bug in the area.

“There have been houses lost. We’re saying it’s greater than 10.

“The community of Boolarra was heavily impacted.”

Mr Owen said firefighters on Friday had to abandon control lines and rush to protect homes.

Dennis Bawden, 51, returned to his Boolarra home on Saturday to find his three-bedroom house reduced to a burnt-out pile of bricks and twisted corrugated iron.

His three pet alpacas died in the blaze.

“The hardest part is someone deliberately lit it,” he said. “It’s senseless.”

Mr Brumby said everything possible was being done to bring the fires under control.

“For anyone who’s lost their home it’s a devastating experience,” he said.

“Some families had some notice and we’re able to get some of their valuables out.

“We have activated the emergency grants that are available immediately to families that are affected,” he said.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said it was an “ugly” time for the affected families and communities.

“I think the hearts and prayers of all decent-minded Australians go out to those families who are suffering, those communities suffering from these appalling fires,” he told reporters in Canberra.
CFA chief officer Russell Rees said it was fortunate no one had died in the fires.

“Whilst people lost their houses, whilst people have gone through incredible difficulty and trauma, the reality is that no one has died in these fires.

“We’ve lost property, we’ve lost very valuable plantation, we’re protecting critical government and community infrastructure, and we’re doing everything we can,” he said.

Mr Owen said Saturday’s weather had provided favourable conditions and the light winds were expected to continue into Sunday.

The fire was moving in a north westerly direction on Saturday afternoon.

A number of community meetings were held in local towns on Saturday to update residents of the situation.

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