TODAY marks the 10th anniversary of the Hazelwood Mine Fire, a disaster the region will never forget.
This almighty inferno burned for 45 days, suffocating Morwell and surrounding towns with smoke, causing widespread panic.
Burning only 400 metres away from some streets of Morwell, thousands of people fell sick within days as the dangerously toxic smoke entered airways.
Beginning on February 9, 2014, the Hazelwood fire started when embers from the multiple nearby grassfires reached the worked-out coal mine, feeding itself on the coal to create the worst mine fire in the history of the region.
Throughout the incident, 20 firemen received treatment for smoke inhalation, and at that time, there were complaints of headaches, nausea, sore throats, diarrhoea, nose bleeds, painful eyes, chest discomfort and exhaustion.
One of the most tragic cases from the episode was the story of volunteer mine firefighter, David Briggs.
Mr Briggs worked 12-hour shifts through the night to try and stop the Hazelwood fire, oblivious to the danger to himself.
Months later, Mr Briggs suffered from shortness of breath, headaches, fatigue and nausea.
His lung health deteriorated and he was soon diagnosed with terminal pulmonary fibrosis.
Living on oxygen tanks with 18 per cent lung capacity, Mr Briggs was among the many victims who continue to suffer a decade on from the Hazelwood Mine Fire tragedy.
Local mother Wendy Farmer recalled the dishes she was washing at the exact moment she received a call informing her that her husband Brett was immediately required at work at Hazelwood Power Station.
“It looks like hell,” is what Wendy’s husband told her when he reported back.
As the smoke began to thicken and air quality worsened, Ms Farmer grew concerned with the lack of advice from the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The first protest that Ms Farmer attended was called ‘Disaster In The Valley – Dying For Help’, where people gathered to express their frustration at the whole situation.
Their frustration was with the mine owners, GDF SUEZ Energy International’s failure to rehabilitate the unused section of the mine or have sufficient safety measures in place.
Frustration also lay with the EPA and their slow reaction to address pollution concerns.
From that protest, Ms Farmer’s Voices of the Valley community organisation was created, to speak for everyone suffering from the hazardous effects of the Hazelwood open-cut mine.
While the fire was officially declared ‘under control’ on March 25, 2014, it was not fully extinguished until June 6, 2014.
An inquiry was launched in August 2014, and found that GDF Suez was at fault for failing to be prepared for fire.
Changing its name to Engie, the corporation went on trial in front of a Supreme Court jury and was found guilty of putting workers and the community at risk in June 2020, six years after the fire.
The court handed the Hazelwood Power Corporation a $1.56 million fine for occupational health and safety breaches.
The Hazelwood Power Corporation was fined an additional $380,000, totalling over $1.9 million.
CFA volunteer firefighter, Doug Steley from Heyfield, recalled working through the night trying to fight the fire – except the CFA had no water to fight the fire because the mine owners had removed the water pipes.
In his account to the inquiry, Mr Steley described an unorganised response to the fire, relaying to the investigators the overgrown shrubbery in the mine, equipment faults and accessibility issues.
Much has changed over the past 10 years, but the devastation from the fire will remain a significant part of Gippsland’s history.