Australia

Forgotten wall of fire that stunned a community

SOCIETY
Hazelwood
Tom Doig
Viking, $34.99

Today, it seems almost quaint that a catastrophe could be so localised as to be virtually ignorable. Yet this was the case in 2014 with the Hazelwood Mine fire. For 45 days the open-cut mine, with walls taller than the Sydney Harbour Bridge, glowed with a fire that raged throughout its subterranean network of fissures and crevasses.

The inferno at Hazelwood in February 2014.

The inferno at Hazelwood in February 2014.Credit:Keith Pakenham

Morwell, population 13,000, ends only a few hundred metres from the mine and was blanketed in toxic smoke and particulate matter, leading to an estimated 23 deaths. Only 150 kilometres from Melbourne, for a few weeks the inferno failed to gain real attention outside the Latrobe Valley.

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Tom Doig's book, freshly released from embargo following a court case against the mine's owner, is an attempt to redress this blind spot.

Like its subject, Hazelwood is constructed of raw materials. Doig's interviews allow the narrative to focus on key people in real-time as the stories emerge: of the fire, the interminable inaction of authorities and the eventual self-discovery of the community as a potent political force. Their voices are allowed to speak for themselves. This is an important point. Doig could have been more visible, layering discussion on the follies of neoliberalism throughout the narrative, but his book is leaner for his restraint.

Those in the community, who were raised within the paternal corporate statelet of the Latrobe Valley, must discover in Hazelwood that a fair and just Australia, where those with power act in the best interests of the people, is a myth. The sense of betrayal is palpable as each concentric ring of authority failed to respond to the escalating crisis.

First, the mine's owner had reduced safety staff to skeletal levels. When the fire ignited, sprinklers had been sold for scrap, access roads lay in disrepair and the mine was overgrown with flammable scrub. Contractors were called in, told to work within the toxic inferno without proper safety gear then tasked to prioritise protecting expensive mining equipment.

The local member left his seat for a vote in Melbourne during the catastrophe's crucial opening phase and then the police failed to evacuate Morwell's vulnerable population even as some developed chronic pulmonary conditions.

The Department of Health and Human Services bungled communication, informing Morwellians that everything was all right. It was not. Even a hardened media should have recognised the pyrotechnic value of the hellish images that adorn the book's cover – but until towards the end they too stayed away.

As with each person in Hazelwood, the reader must discover the callousness of power in modern Australia – for all the bluster, multinationals, politicians and the media were missing when it counted. Doig's book contains the tragedies of those who died or developed terminal conditions from the smoke because they were simply too poor to leave.

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Its heart lies with those who discovered their voice and have not stopped using it to hold power to account. Those such as Wendy Farmer, who was transformed from apolitical receptionist to keen rhetorician and advocate; her daughter Naomi, who was the first to perceive the situation's gravity and report on it; Ron Ipsen, who deduced the heightened death levels during the fire from previous death notices; and Tracie Lund, who ran against the incumbent local member Russell Northe in a bid to force a minority government.

Hazelwood covers similar territory to Doig's earlier book, The Coal Face, a tighter work that focuses exclusively on the fire. This account is broader. It provides vital historical context about the valley's settlement but, more importantly, it also explains why this story is by no means done despite the closure in 2017 and the demolition of the power station beginning with the chimneys in May this year.

The mine's rehabilitation is another incendiary issue. The plan to fill it with some 740 billion litres of water – one and a half Sydney Harbours – could take up to 500 years. The community appears ready to fight and one hopes Doig will continue to write the story .

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