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Crews battle scorched almond hulls
Excellent work by crews saved more than $1 million of almond hulls with 42,000 unburnt tonnes moved to a distant stockpile involving the coordination of 3300 truckloads over seven days.
Acting Officer in Charge of Mildura Fire Brigade Malcolm Hayes became incident controller not long after the fire was called in at 11:25pm.
“It was an unbelievable incident,” he said. “Crews were battling six stacks of almond husks that were 150 metres long and 10 to 15 metres in height. Thermal imaging cameras recorded temperatures 1000 degrees in the stacks and responding crews could see the glow and flames in the sky from 30 kilometres away as they approached the scene.
“The fire behaviour was very aggressive with embers starting grassfires around the plant and up to 200 metres from the stacks, and that was Nature helping us! The wind was mostly blowing away from the unburnt hulls but of course it sometimes swung around and put the plant under ember attack.
“Loaders onsite cut a track between the burnt and unburnt stacks and where there were whirlwinds of flames reported to be as high as 20 to 30 metres. For about four or five hours, our crews knocked down every spot fire they could and stopped the fire from spreading .”
In fact, the fire was fought 24 hours a day for 10 days straight, with the processing plant employing an army of contractors to work alongside their own staff – 150 people in total. Resources included six loaders, eight tippers, four water tankers carrying 30,000 litres each and equipped with water cannons, five 10,000lt water trucks, two 20-tonne and two 30-tonne excavators, one D7 and two D9 bulldozers, three tally handlers, one grader and six mobile light stations.
“Olam is one of the best companies we’ve ever worked with,” continued Malcolm. “We set up an ICC in one of their offices and liaised with them daily.”
The $60 million Olam almond hulling and processing plant in Carwarp opened in early 2013. At 12,000 m², it is the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere with 14 tonnes of almonds shelled and de-hulled per hour.
“Almond hull plants are relatively new so we’re actively looking at how we can improve our processes and best manage these stockpiles,” said Malcolm. “The decomposing hull stacks emit flammable gases. Moisture within causes the stacks to smoulder and then burn when exposed to oxygen. It’s the same principle as haystack fires but it’s a lot more aggressive fire that is harder to extinguish.”
Cameron Bell is the Manager of Almond Processing Operations at Olam.
“The risk to our plant was significant,” he said, “but we were also aware we could have an even bigger incident on our hands. We needed to act urgently and CFA were incredibly helpful, cooperative and dedicated to working with us. They gave us really good advice and helped us with the wind shifts which was really the biggest issue to deal with.
“It was such a big commitment from them, our staff and contractors and they all integrated. Thanks also to the CFA support people who came out to cook for us.
“The best outcome was that not a single person was hurt. Across such a big commitment, everyone adhered to the safety rules.”
The company arranged a thank-you dinner last Friday for all CFA members and contractors who attended the mammoth incident.
“What a fantastic effort our member put into saving this plant,” said Malcolm. “A total of 33,000 tonnes of the hulls were burnt, but if we lost the other side of the plant they would have closed production at the factory. The roll-on effect would have been the potential loss of 110 jobs and a disruption to the $200 million 2014 crop production.
“This was one of the largest fires the Sunraysia has battled in some time, but the volunteers, staff and Olam management worked together under extreme condition to make the situation safe.”
Read about another similar recent fire: Almond hull fire goes nuts
Date: 7 November 2013
Brigades: Carwarp, Irymple, Ouyen, Red Cliffs, Robinvale, Swan Hill, Mildura, Bendigo, Nangiloc, Merbein, Werrimull