Thousands of Morwell residents have taken to the streets to show their frustration at the Napthine government's botched response measures as smoke from the Hazelwood coal mine fire continues to choke the town.
Over 1000 locals packed Kernot Hall before marching through the nearby suburb of Mid Valley to voice their anger at the Victorian government’s handling of the situation.
Fire fighters say it may take another 14 days to completely put out the blaze, and locals say the town should have been evacuated weeks ago.
“The children of Morwell are sick, the adults of Morwell are sick, it has now become normal in Morwell to be suffering from smoke inhalation,” Morwell South mother Erin Gruis said yesterday.
“The Health Minister has finally told us what they’ve been sitting on for weeks — that smoke is bad for you, and long exposure is bad for you.
“What do you describe as prolonged — three days, one week, it has been almost a month that people have been exposed to these toxins.”
While the government has been steadfast in its refusal to order a town-wide evacuation, it has stepped up advice and assistance to help those most at risk to leave Morwell.
Authorities say the elderly, young children, pregnant women and those with pre-existing heart or lung conditions should seek to temporary accommodation elsewhere.
The state government said payments of up to $1250 a week will be available to help eligible people get out of the town.
Chief health officer Rosemary Lester said the advice for those deemed vulnerable was a precautionary measure and defended the timing of the announcement.
“The advice up until now has been appropriate for the length of exposure,” she said.
“Because we know now that the exposure is likely to continue, we think now is the right time to increase the advice to temporary relocation.”
However others say there is a lack of information on the health effects of prolonged exposure to carbon dioxide laden smoke.
Victorian Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews says more needs to be done, and has called for the Federal Government to intervene.
"If it's dangerous for those vulnerable groups they should be evacuated, not just encouraged to leave," he said.
"Denis Napthine has proven he's just not up to it. It's time that Tony Abbott, the Federal Government and federal agencies got involved.
Residents say they will consider lodging a class action against mine owner GDF Suez with forms inviting residents to list their health problems and financial difficulties as a result of the fire handed out yesterday as part of the protest, The Guardian reported.
One of the rally’s organisers, Heather Dawes, said much more needed to be done.
“The government is saying, if you’re concerned, see your doctor. But we need someone to actually fund the doctor. We already know that we’re sick. We need someone to fund the help,” she said.
While others have called for help from banks and insurance companies.
“The rest of us can’t just leave our jobs. We need banks to defer mortgage payments, and insurance companies to help,” David Illing said.
Meanwhile hot and windy conditions tomorrow are expected to hamper fire fighting efforts.
Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley said 80 per cent of the fire had been extinguished but conceded it may take a further two weeks to put out.
More than 200 fire fighters are working around the clock to battle the blaze.
The hunt is still on for arsonists who are believed to have lit the fire on February 9.
For more information on the Hazelwood open cut mine fire:
- Smoke and health: www.health.vic.gov.au
- Health and medical advice: NURSE-ON-CALL 1800 60 60 24
- Air quality: www.epa.vic.gov.au or 1300 372 842 (1300 EPAVIC)
- Fire warnings and advice: www.emergency.vic.gov.au
- Hazelwood fire information: cfa.vic.gov.au