Smouldering at Condong Mill cogeneration plant explained

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Fire Crews worked for more than 40 hours to contain the smouldering mass.

IT WAS a rough start to the week for the Condong Mill co-generation plant on Monday, October 24, after cane material started smoking in the bagasse bin which holds excess cane material after the crushing process.

The bagasse bin forms part of the co-generation power plant which is operated under a contract held by Cape Byron Management Pty Ltd.

To prevent repeated smouldering from occurring it’s anticipated that the frequency of emptying the built-up material will increase, after it was found that given the right circumstances the material can spontaneously ignite.

Fire and Rescue NSW attended the Condong Mill and Inspector and Duty Commander Northern Rivers Zone Phil Sheedy said fire crews took about 36 hours to meticulously clear out the material adding up to about 1500 tonnes, which Inspector Sheedy described as being like talcum powder.

“In the process of crushing cane the shredded material produced builds up in a storage container,” Inspector Sheedy said. “There was about 30-40 feet of material built up, around 1500 tonnes and we needed to work slowly through the material to ensure the fire was completely out.”

Inspector Sheedy said the area was not considered a risk to mill staff and the general public and that it was a part of the milling process.

“This material is a process of the mill and at no time was the smouldering considered to be out-of-control and it was the quick response from the mill staff in contacting the fire authorities that allowed for this process.”

He also commended the Condong Mill staff.

“We were notified the moment the fire appeared and were able to respond without any risk to staff or others,” he said. Speaking with The Weekly, Cape Byron General Manager Gerhard Laubscher said the first thing to note is that the incident this week was not a fire, “please let me explain,” he said.

“We use the left over fibre material (bagasse) from the crushing process in the sugar mill as well as local sawmill residue,” Mr Gerhard said.

“The material we obtain from the Sugar Mill and some of the other materials is similar in moisture content to grass clippings. Just like at home when grass clippings have been sat in a pile for a length of time this material gets hot and if left long enough it starts to smoulder. This is what occurred this week. There were no flames just smoke and hence why it was a smoulder and not on fire.  There was also no damage to any plant or equipment.

“My thanks goes to our Condong team who raised the alarm and then the fire brigade who came to site and kept the heat under control while we emptied the building of fuel. The procedures we had in place worked well and ensured no one was exposed to harm, equipment and buildings were not damaged and a return to service was delivered as quick as possible to support the local farmers who are in the middle of their sugar cane crushing season.

“We are reviewing the procedures again now and we will change some long-standing practices for this even further such as operational modifications and the suitability of including thermal imaging goggles/camera in our weekly checks of the fuel building.”

Anyone confronted with a fire or in danger should contact Triple Zero (000) and ask for fire, ambulance or police for help.