A ''camp fire'' near Morwell has been blamed for causing a bushfire which authorities suspect could have spotted into the Hazelwood open cut coalmine, contributing to a fire which burnt for 45 days, shrouding the town of 14,000 in smoke and coal ash.
The inquiry was told that a fire investigator concluded that a camp fire ignited the Hernes Oak fire on February 7, two days before the coalmine fire ignited. The fire, to the west of Morwell, was deemed a major threat to lives and property on the town's western side and is the second blamed on human activity linked to the mine fire.
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Hazelwood fire inquiry's first day
Admissions of authority’s under performing have opened the first week of the public inquiry into the fire that lasted 45 days.
The other nearby fire, which police believe was lit by an arsonist alongside the Strzelecki Highway at Driffield on Sunday, February 9, has also been blamed for sending falling embers into the coalmine.
On a dramatic first day of the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry, Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley told the hearing that it was possible that both fires spotted into the coalmine, based on the large convection columns each fire caused and how they behaved.
While the inquiry was told that a fire investigator found that a ''camp fire'' ignited the Hernes Oak fire, Mr Lapsley added that the fire could also be considered ''suspicious''.
Mr Lapsley, the first witness, also confirmed parts of the mine did not have extensive sprinklers or water pipes to tackle fire. Asked what impact a comprehensive network of pipes and pumps would have had in combating fire, he said: ''A more sophisticated network means you get water onto coal in a quicker way, which would suggest that you've got a better chance of suppression.''
In other developments the inquiry was told:
■ There are about 100 small fires in the Hazelwood coalmine each year, usually in the working part of the mine.
■ Extra aircraft requested for the Latrobe Valley by first light on the fire's first day (February 9) did not come until mid-to-late morning.
■ There was about an eight-hour gap between the first reports of a coalmine fire and the CFA formally assuming control of the fire effort.
■ 950 fires were reported across Victoria in a 24-hour period spanning February 8 and 9.
Mr Lapsley said he sent the chiefs of the CFA and MFB to inspect the coalmine fire on Monday February 10 and considered it the most significant fire burning in the state at the time.
He also strongly defended the level of aircraft resources sent to Gippsland in a period described as the worst conditions since Black Saturday, saying 14 firefighting aircraft out of 54 were in Gippsland. ''Do your percentages about where we've got it, there's a reasonable cut of the fleet in Gippsland.''
Counsel assisting the inquiry Melinda Richards told the hearing there had been ''several significant fires at the Hazelwood mine since it was privatised'', including in 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2012. The fires during the past decade ''were all ignited from sources inside the mine'', she said.
And she said the Latrobe Valley was ''located in a notoriously bushfire-prone region. There are fires in the area every summer, sometimes catastrophic. Five years ago, on Black Saturday in 2009, the Churchill fire claimed 11 lives, injured 35 others and destroyed 145 houses,'' she said.
Staff of mine owner and operator GDF SUEZ will appear as witnesses at the inquiry on Tuesday.