News & Media

Somerton tip fire 2015 - case study

By: Duncan Russell

Category: Operational Information

  10.11 AM 1 March, 2016

Location: General

Views: 2082

The ‘Learning from incidents’ section of Brigade magazine includes case studies of major incidents researched by Fire & Emergency Management. Here, the team analyses a 2015 tip fire.

A case study is an explanatory story based on a real-life incident that looks at what happened and why it happened. The aim is for people to learn from the case study so they improve their decision making in time-critical situations.

If you have any observations or initiatives you would like to submit from your own experiences in emergency management, visit the Observation Sharing Centre:


In the early hours of 20 November 2015, a blaze erupted in a waste recycling facility in Patullos Lane, Somerton. It was a large and complex fire which burned for several days. Significant work by several agencies, working as one integrated team, contained and then extinguished the fire. Attending agencies were CFA, MFB, Victoria Police, SES, EPA, Ambulance Victoria and a specialist compressed air foam system (CAFS) support team from ACT Fire & Rescue.

There was a lot of media and public interest in this fire because smoke from the burning debris had the potential to impact communities and water run-off contaminated creeks.

Lessons identified

Consequence management focus An early appreciation of the significant consequences of the fire was a valued part of the planning. Community, environment and local businesses were identified and actions taken to minimise the impact where possible. These included appointing an environmental officer as part of the team, assessing the impact on Merri Creek, monitoring contamination and fire water (millions of litres) and closing Hume Highway and local businesses.

Formation of incident emergency management team The team comprised the responder agencies plus local government, water authorities, VicRoads, community interest groups from Merri Creek and adjoining property owners who were affected.

Gathering stakeholders from the affected parties greatly helped the decision-making process for this incident. The ability to tap into the networks linked to these groups assisted in understanding the consequences for the community and developing control priorities.

Incident management team established on fireground The decision was made to use a Level 3 IMT control structure reporting through line of control for a major fire. It was based at the incident ground. This team coordinated command vehicles from several agencies to develop a control centre, with IMT functions allocated to each command vehicle.

Using command vehicles to support the incident response was generally very good. However, the set-up would have been more efficient with better vehicle identification and orientation – it wasn’t obvious what role was being performed by each vehicle. Further work needs to be done to expand the concept of using command vehicles in a Level 3 incident control structure.

Multi-agency response After the initial size-up of the incident, the early multi-agency response that recognised the seriousness and potential complexity of the fire resulted in a positive outcome. This allowed for rapid escalation of the incident.

Insufficient water supply There was an insufficient water supply which meant hoses had to be linked to transport water from three hydrants. Also, a trenched hose lay was needed across the Hume Highway. These actions added to the incident’s complexity.

An officer was appointed to develop a comprehensive hydraulics plan which identified a number of water supply options that reduced the resource requirements while maximising the amount of available water.

Foam The use of Class A and CAFS foams was successful in some parts of the fire because it limited the water application rate and reduced the amount of smoke produced. But the production of Class A foam in a CAFS system was limited because of the equipment and because the use of CAFS is limited in CFA. We need to expand awareness.

Smoke and plume modelling This provided useful intelligence in planning but, given the need to accurately interpret the model, additional guidance was required on the fireground. There were limitations in accessing and interpreting the model and an initial conflict about the appropriate model to use for this circumstance.

Given safety and community concerns, it’s important to get reasonable predictions of smoke travel, the contents of the smoke and areas likely to be affected.

PCC cleaning turnaround There were delays in recommissioning CFA’s personal protective clothing because some items had to be tested and cleaned before recommissioning. This needed to be managed better, particularly for those members who had the capacity to work several shifts.

Demobilisation plan The incident involved a lot of external equipment and particular effort was made to link resources to the right owners. This allowed the resources to be tracked and accounted for correctly during the incident. The demobilisation, however, did have some limitations in the sequencing of release. It has been identified that a table top exercise should be developed and incorporated into district training programs for future logistics and IMT workshops.

Public information The public information and warnings worked extremely well in providing timely warnings to the community. Community information is vital during an incident like this in providing advice about the risk and consequences of the hazard to the community. Overall, the emergency management agencies played an important role in community engagement.

Intelligence Using an MFB drone with remote cameras greatly benefited this incident. The drone is piloted by remote control and carries a camera into the air above an incident. It can transmit realtime images to the incident controller via a portable monitor, which enhances the incident controller’s ability to make timely and effective tactical decisions. It also means management teams can locate and monitor the position of their crews and resources.

Use of heavy plant The assistance of a DELWP plant manager on site ensured that heavy equipment such as excavators and dozers were used efficiently. It was identified that there is a need for plant operators to have a better understanding of the potential effects of smoke exposure and the importance of monitoring carbon monoxide (CO). During this fire, some operators were not aware of the risks associated with exposure to smoke and decontamination requirements.

Aircraft for firefighting An air attack aircraft was also used because of the size of the fire in the early stages, and water from CFA and MFB aerial trucks couldn’t penetrate the fire. When the aircraft was deployed, the fireground crews and trucks stopped temporarily for safety reasons. The process was carried out successfully.

Response and recovery Transition to recovery was complex because of the ongoing clean-up. However, the response and recovery agencies worked cooperatively during the period of transition and gave each other appropriate support.

Asbestos management The fire was difficult to contain due to the amount and types of combustible material involved. The site was believed to contain asbestos, so safety procedures and health monitoring for CO exposure were implemented. A considerable effort was made to ensure crews had adequate respiratory protection and a decontamination process. These arrangements were put in place to mitigate the risk of asbestos to firefighters and staff on site and to mitigate the risk of asbestos leaving the site.

Atmospheric monitoring was also actively engaged to determine the potential exposure to the public and firefighters working in closer proximity to the fire under the smoke management protocols.


Although this incident had a number of complications – proximity to industry, access to water supply, interference with road networks and significant media attention – everyone worked extremely well together to ensure the incident was managed safely for the responders and community. By taking into account the lessons learned, fire agencies can overcome similar challenges in the future.

The ongoing effort from crews, incident management and emergency management partners was instrumental in handling this incident. The crews worked around the clock to bring this incident to a conclusion as quickly as possible.

Last Updated: 08 April 2016