Telling stories in Morwell

By Sally Whyte

This is the view of the Hazelwood mine and power station from the side of the Princes Freeway. The closest houses are less than ten metres behind where I was when I took this photo. Most people in the city don’t really consider where electricity comes from – we flick a switch and the lights turn on, and we don’t think any further. But for people in Morwell, there is a constant reminder of where power comes from.

Since February 9, it’s been impossible to forget about the mine, as it billowed smoke and ash towards the 14,000 residents of Morwell. Beginning as a deliberately lit bushfire, the flames made their way to the open-cut coal mine, where the fire smouldered for weeks.

By the time we got to Morwell, it had been 5 weeks since the fire started in the Hazelwood mine. It was meant to be a good day, but we could smell the smoke, and felt it in our noses and throats. The residents we interviewed told us that the only breaks from the smoke and ash have come from leaving the Latrobe Valley all together. The smoke and ash had even penetrated people’s homes. Deb Hollis told us that it was difficult to explain what was going on to her son who said that “his house hurt him”.

This is what Deb found when she cleaned her air conditioner filter.


Despite regular cleaning, this is the ash on the inside of Simon Ellis’ windowsill.

I couldn’t imagine having no safe space, no respite from the smoke, it would wear down your mental health and your physical health as well. The headlines that reached Melbourne always said that residents south of Commercial Road were most at risk, but we spoke to so many people on the north side of town who were feeling the effects of the smoke just as badly as those in the south.

The residents of Morwell weren’t just weary of the smoke, they were weary of the media. Brandishing a microphone was basically like declaring you had the plague. We spoke to people at their businesses and their homes, and they looked at us suspiciously as we talked about telling their stories. People were especially suspicious on Wallace Street, the closest street to the mine – they haven’t had to deal with just smoke, the ash sits in piles in their sheds and backyards. There was a lot of disillusionment in every conversation – with the government, with the mine management and with the media. They felt that no one was really taking them seriously and that all the ‘solutions’ offered by the authorities weren’t going to solve anything at all. By the time we got to Morwell, we were told “We’ve spoken to the newspaper, to the radio and nothing ever comes of it!”

Even though we were hearing so many negative stories, I left the day with a really positive feeling. Some locals have started Facebook groups to share information and rally for change, they’ve made friends they didn’t have before and started the search for empowerment. Many people have connected with their neighbours and helped them through the tough times.

I also got this photo of contributor Emma Koehn crawling through a fence, so how can you not smile?


Emma climbing through a fence.


You can listen to more stories from Morwell here. 


#1411 Morwell

Back in February one of the coal mines in Morwell caught fire. The entire town was covered in ash. Residents were told to evacuate, the council was giving out masks while the rest of the state worried that they would lose power.

Now, the fires are under control but its left the local community in a bit of a state and its time for the cleanup to begin.

This week, we talk to the residents of Morwell about the aftermath of the open cut mine fire.

Steve Szabo

The mine fire is all south of the train tracks that run through Morwell but the bushfire that sparked the disaster began just north of the tracks on Toners Lane near Steve Szabo’s Golf Driving range.

Produced by Michael Brydon


Deb Hollis

Deb Hollis is a mother and a carer for her autistic son. She talks to Sally Whyte about the ways the ash and smoke from the fire effected her family.

Produced by Sally Whyte


Simon Ellis

Simon Ellis watched the fires start from his veranda. He shows Sally where they came in, and tells her about the effect the fire has had on his life and family.

Produced by Sally Whyte


Councillor Christine Sindt

We travelled to  Morwell was the day the EPA said that the air quality was safe for residents to return. A lot of Morwell, especially south of the railway tracks, have relocated to neighbouring towns, or Melbourne. Councillor Christine Sindt was one of the many residents who evacuated South Morwell.

Produced by Sally Whyte


Friends of the Garden

Morwell might be covered in ash and smell like smoke, but it is still full of roses. On the roundabouts, in people’s front yards and in the town’s rose garden. Del Matthews, Elizabeth Stewart and Karen Cooper tell Michael that the mine fire may have had an unintended beneficiary.

Produced by Michael Brydon


Music credit: Clinging To The Almost by Bell Garden Orchestra


Supervising Producer: Sally Whyte

Presenters:  Michael Brydon and Michaela Morgan

Community Coordinator: Pip Rasmussen

Executive Producers: Giordana Caputo & Belinda Lopez

Features Executive Producers: Heidi Pett & Jess O’Callaghan

Image Credit: Sally Whyte