Just when frazzled Victorians were beginning to emerge from the round-the-clock bushfire frenzy that dominated February, the heat is back on today with the Herald-Sun splashing with the foreboding front page headline “On Edge”.
Today is a day of total fire ban for all Victoria and the outlook for tomorrow looks even grimmer — temperatures are expected to top 35 degrees with an “extreme storm event” set to produce brutal 150 kph winds. Schools may be closed, motorists have been told to say off the roads, and planes and choppers used to fight the fire threat might be forced from the air.
Echoing his “worst day ever” comments on the eve of Black Saturday, Premier John Brumby says tomorrow will be a “terrible, terrible day… probably the second worst day we’ve had”. There are a number of fires still burning across the state, notably the Kilmore East – Murrindindi complex fire. If the fire spreads, townships including Warburton, Healesville and Yarra Glen may again be in the firing line.
But only two kilometres from a range near Murrindindi that was torched on Black Saturday, the buzz of heavy equipment and the incessant whining of tractors, slashers and grinders continues on Brumby’s pet infrastructure project, the $750 million north-south water pipeline. The pipeline work has been granted a total fire ban exemption under section 40 of the CFA Act. But the construction is well within the threat zone — last week, contractors resumed work after part of the pipeline was damaged by bushfires.
According to CFA guidelines, for those without an exemption, welding, grinding, soldering or gas cutting is specifically prohibited on total fire ban days.
On previous days of total fire ban, the construction activity has been modified with welding limited to covered pipes and ditches. However, this appears to be an arbitrary decision of the so-called “Sugarloaf Alliance” (the mix of contractors and Melbourne Water building the project), rather than a formal requirement under the provisions of the Act. A Plug the Pipe activist at the scene this morning told Crikey an excavator, three-tonne trucks, slasher were all going about their work as the mercury rose.
Since Black Saturday, the Sugarloaf Alliance has scaled back some construction activities after consultation with the CFA. But judging by this press release, issued in January, the exisiting guidelines seem to lack punch, stating that just “9 litres” of water are required on site at any one time. Sparks from welders and angle grinders are liable to get out of control in seconds, as this scary story demonstrates. And after Black Saturday, the number of Sugarloaf staff working with the CFA and DSE has been scaled back from over 100 to about 10, despite the re-emergent threat.
In an emailed statement, Sugarloaf project director Rod Clifford said the Alliance was required to contact the CFA on days of total fire ban and seek permission for the work it intended to do. Clifford said that on the eve of Black Saturday, the Alliance “voluntarily took the view that work on the project should be halted the next day in light of what was clearly a historically high level of fire risk.” However, this decision appears to have been made at the last minute – this story, published on the Friday before Black Saturday, suggests work was set to continue as the media storm grew.
At a briefing held this morning, CFA chief fire officer Russell Rees said “nowhere in the state is safe”, adding that the CFA was not “crying wolf” over the threat. Starting heavy machinery on the ground could be an absolute no no, said Rees.
In a statement issued early this afternoon in response to Crikey’s queries, the Alliance said it had decided to voluntarily suspend construction in “bushfire damaged” areas tomorrow, but in other areas work will continue, without slashing or external welding.