The region around Morwell, in the Latrobe Valley in lower central Victoria, is on fire. A bush blaze burning earlier this month spread into the city's nearby open-cut Hazelwood coal mine, and has been smouldering for the last two weeks. Firefighters are working desperately to reduce the intensity of the fire, but even after it's brought under control, the mine will continue to burn from the inside out.
The Latrobe Valley Express quotes Country Fire Authority incident controller Bob Barry as saying that entirely stopping the mine fire is essentially impossible. Barry told the Express: "We will take care of the surface and extinguish to the levels that we can, but we are not going to totally put out this fire... some pockets will not be extinguished until they are dug out." It's getting bad enough that residents of the town want government help to evacuate.
The fire will have to be dug out -- and that's a job for the mine's regular workers, once the rest of the fire has been beaten down and normal operations resume. Industrial fire suppression systems underground will keep the burning to a minimum, making the task part of the clean-up operation after any more pressing issues are resolved.
The Hazelwood mine and its complementary power station are the backbone of Victoria's power generation network, and provide a full 25 per cent of the state's total base load electricity -- so an ongoing coal mine fire could disrupt the stability of power delivery to Victoria.
Air quality in the region is not great. On Saturday, the EPA's air quality index for Morwell East peaked at a figure of over 450Ug/m3 -- that's the concentration of particles in the air that residents are breathing. A figure above 150 is "very poor" in the EPA's parlance -- it's the most severe rating on the scale, and Melbourne itself usually sits around the 30-40 mark.
Fifty years ago, an underground coal mine fire in Centralia, Pennsylvania eventually meant the entire town had to be abandoned. The town actually featured as inspiration for the bleak, desolate, deserted setting of the Silent Hill movie. The Latrobe Valley holds at least 500 years of coal reserves, so the fire spreading to deeper seams would be devastating for the entire region. [Latrobe Valley Express]
Image credit: Sk8er5000, Wikipedia