AUSTRALIA – It’s 74 hectares and is, in parts, seven metres deep. Now firefighters hope a four-kilometre pipeline will finally put out a peat fire that has been burning in the state’s south-west for almost a month.
The 250-millimetre pipeline took four days to construct and will pump up to 50 litres of water a second – four megalitres a day – to the Cobrico fire, 24 hours a day.
The Cobrico blaze is one of three peat fires still burning in the area after the St Patrick’s Day bushfires that destroyed 22 homes and killed thousands of cattle and sheep.
The three fires, known collectively as the Cobden Camperdown peat fires, also include nearby Lake Elingamite (still burning and now 56 hectares) and the much smaller Lake Bullen Merri at Camperdown (now almost extinguished).
The fires have been emitting noxious gas for weeks, prompting constant air-quality warnings. More than 2000 people in the area have been advised of carbon monoxide-poisoning risks.
There haven’t been mandatory evacuations but school students and aged-care residents have been relocated.
Incident controller Graeme Armstrong said firefighters were undergoing twice-daily health checks for carbon monoxide poisoning and were required to wear special face masks to protect against particulants.
Firefighters had been brought in from other parts of the state to relieve local emergency crews, who “have been living this event” since it started on March 17, Mr Armstrong said.
The pipeline is no magical solution to the fires. Mr Armstrong said that without decent rain, it could still be weeks before the blaze was extinguished.
But strategies including the pipeline and specialised compressed-air firefighting units from Tasmania meant efforts to extinguish the peat fires would take “weeks instead of months”.
“Our extinguishment plan runs to the end of April,” Mr Armstrong said. “If it’s not by then, we’ll keep going.”
About 38 properties are directly affected by the peat fires. Many more people have had their lives disrupted since the March 17 fires. Others are simply putting up with what Mr Armstrong described as a “penetrating” smell.
Late last month Cobden resident Chelsea Finlayson told of her fears as both her husband and daughter both fell ill from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Ms Finlayson had put her daughter Layla, 7, to bed shortly after 8pm only to find her in the bathroom vomiting a short time later.
“She was feeling dizzy and had a headache. [My husband] Jake said ‘if you’re not better soon we’ll take you to the hospital’. About 10 minutes later Jake started throwing up and got really dizzy – I had to help him walk,” Ms Finlayson said.
“It was horrible – it was so scary.”
What is peat?
Peat is created gradually in wetlands through the build-up of partially decayed vegetation, and once it has been ignited is very difficult to extinguish and releases large quantities of smoke.
Peat is commonly used to make briquettes.
When breathed in, carbon monoxide displaces oxygen in the blood and deprives the heart, brain and other vital organs of oxygen, EPA Victoria says.
Carbon monoxide can cause “flu-like” symptoms such as headache and tiredness, progressing to dizziness, confusion, nausea or fainting.
Electricity supplier PowerCor faces a class action over the St Patrick’s Day fires in south-west Victoria
Maddens Lawyers principal Brendan Pendergast said the class action encompasses fires in Garvoc Terang, Gazette and Camperdown.
“Class action has already commenced for the Garvoc fire,” he said. “Separate proceedings will shortly be commenced in relation to each of the other three fires.”
Mr Pendergast said more than 50 people have sought compensation for the fire in Garvoc, while more than 100 people had sought legal assistance for the Terang fires.
He estimated the damage bill would exceed $20 million for the Garvoc fire and $40 million for the Terang fire.
But added it was too early to determine the cost of damage caused by the Gazette and Camperdown fires.
“There are likely to be more affected people registering once the proceedings are advanced,” he said.
With Larissa Ham, Matilda Boseley, Monique Patterson and Melissa Cunningham