Mridula Amin’s article in ABC Online 9 February points to the way in which the summer bushfires have brought communities together across the political divide between those focused on coal mining jobs and cheap energy prices, and those concerned about the impact of global warming on the whole socio-environmental system, and the need to reduce emissions so that global warming does not go higher than the 2% that is already locked in.
By Christmas Eve, the Gosper Mountain mega fire of 19 December was threatening Centennial Coal’s Clarence Mine site between Dargan and Lithgow. Mridula takes us through the way in which the local RFS and Centennial Coal’s own firefighting team worked together to prevent the fire reaching the stored coal, threatening to produce a similar toxic disaster as that which affected the Hazelwood Coal Mine in Victoria in 2013
Preparing to Avert Disaster
The battle to make sure those flames never reached the coal was six weeks in preparation.
A collaborative effort between Fire and Rescue NSW, RFS, National Parks and, uniquely, the mine’s own volunteer firefighting team made up of workers who knew the area, paid off in the end.
Fire and Rescue NSW duty commander Bruce Cameron, who helped hatch the strategy, hadn’t expected the fire to be so frenzied.
“We had firestorm conditions but coming from all directions and the wind conditions were extremely erratic and unpredictable,” Mr Cameron said.
Over the course of a week, aerial attacks helped support ground crews control the fires, but as temperatures rose and more lives were threatened in town, the RFS shifted resources.
The fire team at the mine, which is operated by Centennial Coal, became the final frontline as warning signs blared under a blood sun.
With powerlines melting, the heat was inching closer.
Brendan Roach, a miner in the fire team, said everyone knew “where we had to be and what we had to do”, but it was still intense.
“It was full-on hectic, hot, out of control, exhausting. Time just disappeared.”
The ramifications of a blaze igniting coal reserves hadn’t been felt since 2014, when a fire at Hazelwood coal mine in Victoria resulted in 45 days of fire that spewed toxic chemicals such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide. An inquiry linked 11 deaths in the Latrobe Valley to the mine fire.
Clarence Colliery mine manager Kyle Egan, who was on the ground alongside his colleagues, said it was also a personal fight for those in the team.
“They were fantastic. There’s no onus, they’re just volunteers,” he said. “But you’ve got to be proud that they were there trying to protect their jobs and their workmates’ jobs. “That made me proud, that camaraderie. [We] have seen it across Australia, where people come together in the face of adversity.”
Putting Political Differences Aside
Dr Andrew Wilson is a retired park ranger and environmental scientist who lives in Newnes Junction, a small town of about six homes that neighbours the mine.
Three homes, including his own, survived, which he attributes to the mine opening up their millions of litres in water reserves to the RFS and locals.
“I’m a retired park ranger so you’d think I’d be wildly against them but, on the local level, I couldn’t wish for better neighbours,” Dr Wilson said.
Dr Wilson was shocked when one day workers from the mine came up and started filling up his water tanks without warning, to make sure he had enough to fight the fires.
“I was dumbstruck, gobsmacked, thankful.
“They didn’t have to sacrifice from their water, their pumps, their hoses to save a tiny speck of a village behind their mine.”
The mine’s generosity struck a chord and, for him, he thinks Australians must learn to separate individuals from failures that should be addressed at the government level.
“Irrespective of the views we have, it’s no use closing a coal mine tomorrow and putting 100 coal miners out of work — because quite frankly they’re good men,” Dr Wilson said. “Making the individual coal miner responsible for the failure of global policies over two to three hundred years isn’t right. “I’m rather hoping the inquiry that’s been announced will cover those issues.”
The Government has announced a royal commission into the bushfire crisis, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison hoping it will be completed by the end of August.
The Power of Nature
Monica and Tony Cowie lost their property at Dargan, just 10 minutes from Clarence Colliery. Both were volunteer firefighters who had seen the fire front.
“It felt like you had the biggest army in the world over the hill marching towards you, and you felt defenceless,” Monica Cowie said.
“And you try everything to slow it like backburning, but it feels miniscule when you see the size.”
After finishing defending the town’s fire shed to protect evacuees there, the firefighters went around to check homes. Then it came to Tony’s turn.
“You sort of can see the house roof as you drive up the road, and you keep looking for it, looking for it, and it wasn’t there,” he said.
Monica, who couldn’t get back into town due to road closures, answered her phone after not hearing from Tony for hours.
“He rang me to say it was gone. He was crying and he said, ‘We’re homeless now’.”
The Search for Just Transition
In a coal district where Centennial Coal employs about 1,000 people and has employed the area for decades, political talk about coal is not a conversation that is normally broached.
“If you stop coal, you stop the city,” Tony Cowie said.
Monica says conversations in town have slowly begun about climate action in the aftermath of black summer, but they are a far cry from the immediate closures of mines some have lobbied for around the country.
The path for those whose livelihoods depend on it must be one of considered transition, she says.
“It’s important that people have employment, 100 per cent,” Monica Cowie said. “But we need to find a way forward where we can move away from our reliance on coal and maintain or increase employment in renewables.
“And I think there’s a fear we won’t be able to do it.”