‘A very dangerous operation’: How the massive Illawarra substation fire unfolded
18th June 2022
By Kate McIllwain
The fire at a Dapto substation which caused a thick plume of black smoke to rise over the southern Illawarra over the weekend is expected to continue to burn for days.
The blaze started about 3pm on Saturday when a redundant transformer at the Transgrid substation mechanical failed causing oil to catch alight and set off explosions.
This prompted a massive response from emergency services, with 60 firefighters waiting at Yallah for several hours before the site’s electricity could be shut off so they could fight the blaze.
“There is a fire and multiple explosions in one of the large substations on site. Approximately 1,000L oil is currently being contained,” Fire and Rescue NSW said in a statement at 4.48pm on Saturday.
“High voltage power lines are also being impacted by the blaze … The large smoke plume is affecting Wollongong and Unanderra, causing flights in and out of Shellharbour airport to be delayed.”
Flights out of Shellharbour airport were grounded due to the black smoke, and residents were warned to stay indoors and close their windows.
“As a result of the fire large volumes of smoke are emitting from the scene and blowing north bound,” NSW Police said.
“Due to the smoke being considered toxic affected residents are urged to stay indoors and secure all doors and windows.”
The Illawarra Shoalhaven Health District also warned of “poor air quality” in the southern part of the region due to the fire on Saturday night, and said those with respiratory conditions should take extra care.
However, a spokesperson for Transgrid said there had been no danger to residents as the fire was oil-based.
With the fire starting amid the east coast’s tense energy crisis, early reports said the fire was at the nearby Tallawarra Power Station, setting off fears for the region’s energy supply.
Energy Australia said the power station was taken offline for about two hours, but that staff at Tallawarra were able to safely return the plant to service at around 5:15pm to support the evening peak.
The Australian Energy Market Operator confirmed there would be no disruption to the electricity supply in a tweet on Saturday night .
“Aemo is aware of the substation fire at Tallawarra. We would like to reassure customers in NSW that this will not impact the electricity supply,” it said.
Fire and Rescue NSW Commissioner Paul Baxter called the incident “very dangerous” and complex.
About 5pm he tweeted that “significant resources” were on scene and “being mobilised as backup should they be required”.
“This is a large TransGrid 33 kv transformer, a very dangerous operation, we are working closely with TransGrid and Police,” he said.
Hours later, he reported that crews were “continuing to work on this complex incident”.
On Sunday morning, when the smoke was just a small billow visible from close the to substation, Superintendent Adam Dewberry said there were two remaining fire crews with 10 firefighters containing the blaze.
He said the fire was stable but will continue to burn for at least two days.
NSW Environment Protection Authority was also on-site and discussing the next steps with NSW Fire and Rescue.
Supt Dewberry said consideration was being given to the impact of the smoke flume and potential runoff on the environment.
“The fire is being contained and it is stable and no longer a threat. There is a chance we will let the fire burn out if that is the better option for the community and the environment.
“The EPA is on-site and is looking at the water runoff and what is in the smoke plume,” he said.