Calls for Morwell evacuation as coal mine fire continues to burn

The Victorian state government has been urged to evacuate the town of Morwell and issue a state of emergency as smoke from a coal mine fire continues to affect the community.

The comments come after the fire at Hazelwood mine burns for its third week, prompting criticism of the Napthine government’s handling of the situation on the ground.

The fire is burning at two separate coal faces at the mine’s disused open cut site, with smoke hanging at low altitude in the Morwell community.

Opposition health spokesman Gavin Jennings said people’s lives were being put at risk, with one of the fires at the site emitting carbon monoxide.

''At what stage does air quality become so bad that you have to do something more than stay indoors or reduce your physical activity outside?'' Jennings said.

Health Minister David Davis said while the fire was serious, more than 31 people had been tested for carbon monoxide and were “below levels of concern”.

He said of the 136 people who had attended an assessment centre, four had been referred to hospital while others had been told to consult a GP or pharmacist, The Age reported.

''Everything that is required on the ground in terms of information and advice has been put in place,'' Davis said.

''Vulnerable people … older people, pregnant women and, indeed, children, and also particularly those with respiratory conditions, were advised to seek support and attention from the relevant medical authority.''

The Environment Protection Authority issued a low level smoke alert for the Latrobe Valley today, warning visibility would be 10 – 20 kilometres due to high particle concentrations in the air.

The EPA’s air quality index for Morwell South, adjacent to the mine, was 109 between 9- 10am this morning. Anything more than 100 is considered ''poor''.

"PM 2.5 levels are at high levels and remain the primary risk, so it is important the community heed the advice issued by the Chief Health Officer each day during this incident,” EPA CEO John Merritt said.

The EPA warns thatfor the 24 hours to 9 am Wednesday fair to very poor air quality is expected in Latrobe Valley.

 “If I lived in Morwell with a young family, I wouldn't be there because I would consider the level of risk unacceptable,” former GP and Greens senator Richard Di Natale said.

''You're walking a tightrope between not trying to create unnecessary fear and anxiety in the community, but also being honest and upfront about the risks people are facing."

Victorian chief health officer Rosemary Lester said smoke could exasperate existing heart or lung conditions and cause irritated eyes, coughing and wheezing.

Lester said it was "a wise thing to take breaks from the smoke".

"I would rather move away with my child if I could," Lester said today.

Authorities have made 25,000 masks available to local residents.

Authorities have also advised residents to visit a respite centre in the nearby Traralgon where assistance was available to anyone who needed help leaving the town, including fuel vouchers to visit relatives.

A Morwell lady yesterday pleaded with the government to evacuate the town, 3AW reported.

Emma Ramsey said smoke from the fire was affecting her children’s health.

Ramsey said her two-year-old twins had been prescribed Prednisolone, used to treat a number of inflammatory and auto-immune conditions, and are using a ventolin puffer every three hours for asthma symptoms.

The mother said her seven-year-old daughter has also been tired and ill.

"The air stinks … and it's very hard to breathe," she told Neil Mitchell.

"We're all on the puffer. You get itchy eyes and a sore throat.”

Ramsey said she wanted to leave the town but could not afford to do so on her own, calling on the government to enforce an evacuation order.

"We have no money to go anywhere," she said.

"Do something. I want some suitable place for young families to go."

Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley called the fire complex but said evacuation triggers had not been met.

At the site, incident controller Bob Barry said while crews had made good progress, the fire continued to burn.

While a number of cracks have opened up along the mine’s southern wall in the fire zone.

Barry said firefighters had been removed from that area as a precaution after the one crack was found to be up to 10 metres deep and 2.5 metres wide.

"(We) will work around any openings while we determine the best way to manage the cracks in the coal," Barry said.

"The development of cracks at a coal mine is a common occurrence and treatment strategies are developed to address these.

"They are not posing a threat to the community or critical infrastructure.

"We are gaining ground on the Hazelwood fire and will keep making progress, but things come up on occasion that we will have to manage."

Meanwhile two compressed air foam units from ACT Fire and Rescue have arrived to help compat the northern fire.

"The main focus on the fire fight today is the northern batters and using compressed air foam is part of that," Barry said.

"A thick layer of foam will stop it spreading and, importantly, it may reduce the amount of smoke affecting Morwell.

"This foam is useful but it won't solve the problem it is another tactic to aid us but there is still a long way to go in this fire fight."

The fire is expected to burn for a further 14 days with windy conditions expected to hamper fire-fighting efforts today.

For more information on the Hazelwood open cut mine fire:

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