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Beware of the unknown when working near old mine shafts

  | Christopher Simmins Views: 5575

For firefighters in the bush, operations frequently take us walking into old mining areas.                  

Beware of the unknown when working near old mine shafts

As a long-time volunteer, driver educator, wildfire instructor, operational firefighter and pilot, health and safety is of a principal concern to me. We often concentrate on the common hazards such as falling tree branches and fire behaviour but often overlook where we put our feet or drive heavy firefighting vehicles.  

Even with risk assessments prior and during operations, odd events beneath our feet can take us by surprise. Concealed or obvious holes on the fireground can be a huge risk, especially at night.

I’m reminded of a time when I was a CFA volunteer firefighter blacking out in bushland near old gold workings at Maryborough. A fellow volunteer working near me was saved from certain death by desperately clinging onto the fire hose he was using. He had stepped onto a poorly-capped deep shaft that had finally given way after 100 years.

And the risks are still there. At 6.23pm on Tuesday 9 October, Maldon and Newstead & District fire brigades responded to the report of a driver possibly trapped in a vehicle in bushland at the base of Mt Tarrengower near Maldon (pictured).

The exact location of the incident initially proved difficult to locate for local volunteers and following responding crews. The driver had ventured off the formed tracks to explore an area of cleared ground and old gold diggings - and into the mouth of an old mine shaft.

Inside the vehicle were a 29-year-old woman from Maldon and her dog. She was lucky to get out as the angle of the vehicle meant the upper and rear doors of the van were too heavy to open.

Using an axe, she smashed the front windscreen to free both herself and her furry companion from the four-wheel drive. Both occupants were uninjured, although understandably startled.

Driving into the area of the accident, I was concerned that our own heavy tanker and its crew could suffer the same fate. To avoid disaster, I stayed on the established tracks and we walked safely to the job.

To not drive directly into the job might sound like a tad overreaction but, in my experience, erring on the side of caution frequently works.

I’m also reminded of a disaster one of my students had a few years ago. She had come to class in tears.

She had bought a property in Bendigo a few weeks earlier and on this particular morning was woken by a heavy thunderstorm and the unusual sound of roaring water rumbling down through her steep front yard.

Intrigued she ventured outside, shining her torch into the darkness. While looking for the source of the noise, an elderly neighbour appeared, yelling, “I wouldn’t get too close to that edge. It looks like it’s opened up again”.

As they both retreated to a safer spot, the edge let go, taking with it part of her front yard, footpath and a portion of roadway.

It turned out the hole that was once her pretty front yard was an old mine shaft some 1,450 metres deep. It was originally closed off with a lattice of railway sleepers. The hole was fenced and eventually capped with suitably reinforced concrete by various authorities, and life resumed. The old shaft was documented on mining records.

So my advice to any brigades working in areas where there are capped mine shafts: beware of the unknown beneath your feet. If it looks like holy ground it may take you there.