Stakes rise as role of power lines shifts to fore

Michael Bachelard
The Age

Deep in the grasslands of Victoria’s Western District, near the town of Coleraine, an ageing piece of tie-wire snapped at lunchtime on Black Saturday.

The wire was holding up a power line, which fell, brushing through the leaves of a nearby tree. In and out of the branches it blew, arcing and sparking. Then, in 40-degree temperatures, the tree caught fire.

About the same time, 105 kilometres away near Horsham, the 47-year-old mounting on top of a pine power pole worked its way loose. It was already weakened – one of the three bolts holding it had fallen out some time earlier. In the wind, the other two bolts popped out and the mount fell off. The power line scraped down the side of the pole, sparking, and hit the ground. In the 0.3 seconds it took for the fuse to cut power supply to the line, another fire had begun.

Electricity distributor Powercor owned both the Coleraine and Horsham lines and, in the Bushfires Royal Commission, accepted these explanations of how the fires started. It has expressed doubts, though, about its power line’s culpability for another fire, at Pomborneit.

Near Beechworth, in a fire that killed two people, power lines owned by another distribution company, Singapore-owned SP AusNet, are in the frame. That company has been more reluctant to accept that its powerlines caused fires.

The Bushfires Royal Commission has scrutinised the stay-or-go policy, failures in communication, the need for safe places and the role of bunkers – but its examination of the role of power lines in the February 7 fires, which killed 173 people, has attracted much less publicity.

Five fires – half the total – were started by electricity lines. The commission has looked at four – Coleraine, Horsham, Pomborneit and Beechworth – and raised serious questions about the safety of the infrastructure and the regularity of inspections. But the main event will come next month, when the cause of the deadly Kilmore East-Kinglake fire will be examined.

This fire, too, was caused by a single-wire power line. The Sunday Age reported in August that police photographs indicated this line was seriously weakened, rusty and repaired numerous times. Evidence suggests that it broke about 11.30am in 60 to 80 km/h winds, sparked, and caused a fire that would go on to kill 121 people.

Much is at stake for SP AusNet. A legal class action has been launched, and will be fought after the commission completes its hearings. Perhaps as a result of this, in the lead-up to the royal commission hearing, the company has been entirely defensive about the role of its power lines on Black Saturday.

This has already led to some strange exchanges. The inquiry last month into the Beechworth-Mudgegonga fire descended into a discussion about whether a tree or the line itself was at fault. Most of the investigators and witnesses say it was the electricity line arcing against the concrete power pole, spraying molten metal to the ground, as it fell under the weight of the half-dead tree. Some suggest the tree should have been identified as a hazard and removed well before the worst fire day on record. But SP AusNet’s lawyer, Jonathan Beach, argued it was the tree’s fault entirely, dismissing any ”fancy theories about arcing”.

That insulted Beechworth fire victim Robyn Norris who, with her husband, lost her Barwidgee Creek business, and almost her life, in the blaze. They have joined the class action over the fire.

”At the end of the day, if I’d done something wrong … I’d be accountable. So why aren’t they (SP AusNet)?” Ms Norris said.

”Anyone with half a brain would have realised the tree was dangerous.”

The signs are that the company, 51 per cent owned by the Singapore Government’s investment arm since 2005, will take a similar approach when the cause of the Kinglake fire is examined.

The class action it faces is worth up to $1 billion, with at least 1300 people seeking compensation. To succeed, the action must prove the power company was negligent. Observers believe SP AusNet’s public denials are being driven at least in part by lawyers briefed by insurers.

The company has strongly resisted any conclusion that its power line was at fault, and its representatives at the royal commission have spent the five months of its proceedings trying at every turn to maximise the liability of others, including the CFA and the police.

”No one is in a position to make judgments about what caused the fire at Kilmore East on Black Saturday without pre-empting the outcomes of a police investigation and the royal commission,” a company spokesman told The Sunday Age.

Both the Coleraine and Horsham wires were erected in 1962, as the then-State Electricity Commission used Single Wire Earth Return (SWER) lines, the cheapest possible technology available, to take power to the furthest reaches of the state.

In the mid-1990s, the power companies decided that inspecting their assets every three years was expensive and unnecessary. They told the safety regulator they would be moving to five-yearly inspections. The regulator agreed, subject to auditing for safety. That decision has now been questioned in the royal commission. In Coleraine, the wire that started the fire had not been inspected for four years and five months, and the Horsham line had not been inspected for four years and seven months. Both had detatched from their poles on other occasions in recent years.

Robyn Norris knows little of these technicalities but her response to SP AusNet is a direct one: ”If they’re denying it, it shows they’re not going to learn from their mistakes.”

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