Victoria is one of the most bushfire prone areas in the world. Victoria experiences bushfires every fire season. Many of these bushfires are catastrophic events resulting in the loss of life and property. The Latrobe Valley, like much of Victoria and many parts of Australia, has been greatly affected by bushfire. Five years ago, on Black Saturday, the Churchill fire claimed 11 lives, injured 35 others and destroyed 145 houses.
The Latrobe Valley is home to three open cut brown coal mines. Open cut brown coal mines are particularly vulnerable to fire and to fire that spreads quickly and is difficult to extinguish.
Victoria experienced one of its hottest and driest summers on record in 2014. In mid-January 2014, Melbourne endured its most prolonged heatwave since 1908, with four consecutive days over 40°C. Between 7 and 9 February 2014, emergency services and firefighting resources were committed to responding to multiple significant fires across the State and within the Latrobe Valley. The Fire Services Commissioner and the Chief Health Officer made several announcements warning the community about the potential for extreme weather conditions and associated fire and health risks. On 9 February 2014, the entire State of Victoria was facing the most extreme weather conditions since Black Saturday.
The Hazelwood mine fire that began on 9 February 2014 was the largest and longest burning mine fire that has occurred in the Latrobe Valley to date. The fire was caused by embers spotting into the Hazelwood mine from bushfires burning in close proximity to the mine. The mine fire burned for 45 days. The fire sent smoke and ash over the town of Morwell and surrounding areas for much of that time.
On 11 March 2014, a day after the fire was declared under control, Dr Denis Napthine MP, Premier of Victoria, announced an independent inquiry into the Hazelwood mine fire. On 21 March 2014, the Governor in Council officially established the Board of Inquiry, which comprised the Honourable Bernard Teague AO, Professor Emeritus John Catford, and Ms Sonia Petering.
The Hazelwood mine fire constituted two emergencies: a major complex fire emergency and a serious public health emergency.
The Inquiry’s Terms of Reference required the Board to inquire into and report on a range of issues, including the origin of the fire, the firefighting response, fire prevention and preparedness measures taken by the owner, operator and licensee of the mine and regulatory agencies, the fire’s impacts on the health and wellbeing of affected communities, and the response to the health emergency.
The mine owner, operator and licence holder of the Hazelwood mine is a partnership of subsidiary companies majority owned by GDF Suez S.A. In this Executive Summary, ‘GDF Suez’ is used to refer to the owner, operator and licence holder of the Hazelwood mine and all of its related entities. The term ‘the State’ is used broadly to refer to the Victorian Government, the Victorian public service and Victorian government authorities and agencies.
The impact of the Hazelwood mine fire on the Latrobe Valley community has been significant. People have been affected in many ways. First and foremost, the community has experienced adverse health effects and may be affected for an indeterminate period into the future.
Many people and local businesses have experienced financial impacts for a range of reasons including a downturn in business, medical costs, veterinary costs, time taken off work, relocation from their homes, cleaning their homes and businesses, and possible decreases in property value.
It is impossible to quantify the cost of the Hazelwood mine fire, but the Board estimates the total cost borne by the Victorian Government, the local community and the operator of the Hazelwood mine, GDF Suez, exceeds $100 million.
The Board commends all firefighters, including both emergency services personnel and GDF Suez employees, who worked under difficult conditions to protect Hazelwood mine assets and prevent fire spreading into the operating area of the mine. The Board recognises in particular the tireless dedication of the volunteers who responded to the Hazelwood mine fire, including volunteer firefighters and other emergency services personnel, local hospital and other healthcare staff, not-for-profit and community based organisations, and the many individuals and organisations in the local community who went above and beyond what was expected of them throughout the course of this event.
Extreme bushfire conditions like those experienced in the summer of 2014 are occurring with increasing frequency and severity. They will happen again. The Latrobe Valley is particularly vulnerable.
Despite the high risk of a catastrophic fire event occurring and the all too recent experience of Black Saturday etched in our memory, many Victorians continue to underestimate the probability of fire events and ‘hope for the best’ in the fire season. This approach ultimately impedes the ability to prepare for, and to respond to, the reality of fire. It is imperative that government agencies and operators of essential infrastructure, in particular the brown coal mining industry, learn from this event and are better prepared to manage fire risk and respond to fire in the future.
This Inquiry took place against a backdrop of significant ongoing reform following lessons learned from the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, particularly in the areas of emergency management and integrated fire management planning.
During the Inquiry, the State and GDF Suez expressed a commitment to undertake numerous additional actions in response to the Hazelwood mine fire. The Board has affirmed a number of these commitments. However, there is more work to be done. The Board of Inquiry makes 18 recommendations to the State and GDF Suez, which have been drafted taking into account the feasibility of implementation, as well as the issues raised by the Latrobe Valley community.
Chapter 1 of this report contains important background information, including key facts regarding the Latrobe Valley, the town of Morwell and the Hazelwood mine, as well as an explanation of the Board’s role and the assumptions underlying the Board’s discussions, conclusions and recommendations. It also contains a guide to reading the report and should be the starting point for all readers.