Morwell locals say smoke is making their lives impossible and authorities have been slow to act on the impact of the coalmine fire that’s clouding the Victorian town.
People aged over 65, preschool-age children, pregnant women and anyone with a pre-existing heart or lung condition have been advised to temporarily move out of Morwell South, the residential area closest to the mine.
But others in the town are angry with the response by authorities, and heckled them in Morwell during their Friday media conference about the temporary relocation.
“We can’t sleep, we can’t go outside, we can’t breathe,” said Estelle Landy through tears. There’s people in the street wearing masks every day.
“Everyone here shows you there’s a problem and nothing’s done at all. They tell us to stay and we can’t. You can’t continue to allow this to happen.”
Chief health officer Rosemary Lester said the advice for those deemed vulnerable was a precautionary measure.
“This is not an evacuation,” she said. “It is an advice for a temporary relocation until the air quality improves.”
Dr Lester defended the timing of the stepped-up advice, given fire authorities had already said it would take at least another fortnight to get on top of the blaze.
“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.”
Fire to continue burning
It’s expected to take at least another 10 days to get on top of the fire in the Hazelwood open-cut mine, which has been burning for nearly three weeks.
Dr Lester said moving temporarily would be the best way for vulnerable people to avoid the continuing smoke.
The continued advice to other residents is to take temporary breaks from the smoke, to stay indoors and avoid physical activity outside.
New weekly government grants of up to $1250 will be available to those deemed eligible for the duration people need to be away from their homes.
Thousands enduring the fumes, however, can now breathe easier with the state government coughing up the cash to cover their train tickets.
Ticket to ride
Public Transport Minister Terry Mulder says return train tickets to anywhere in Victoria are a goodwill gesture for those wanting to escape the smokey conditions.
“There are plenty of options for Morwell people to take a trip to town for lunch, a movie, or a spot of shopping,” he said in a statement.
Dr Lester said the effects of medium-term exposure to the smoke was unclear, and there had been no serious health problems in Morwell as yet.
“We know it can produce health effects for everyone, but we do know that some groups are at higher risk than others.”
Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley said in the best case it would be another 10 days before the fire stops putting significant smoke and ash over Morwell, but authorities are concerned about two hot and windy days next week.
Premier Denis Napthine urged people to follow the chief health officer’s advice, but said there was no compulsion for people to relocate.
The fire has forced a judge to twice move a criminal trial 50km away to Sale, while Australia Post has suspended delivery to Morwell street addresses and several schools, kindergartens and childcare centres in Morwell have also been closed or relocated to nearby towns.