Australia — The watchdog found that the company was responsible for last year’s fire that destroyed 38 homes in the West Australian town of Toodyay.
Residents Laurie Biggs and Marie Jones, who lost everything in the massive bushfire, could not believe the decision, and pledged to fight the state-owned electricity provider in court.
Investigating authority Energy Safety yesterday concluded that the fire started when a 34-year-old Western Power pole fell over and ignited stubble in a paddock.
Energy Safety director Ken Bowron was scathing of Western Power’s record of pole failures as he blamed the utility for the blaze.
But Western Power managing director Doug Aberle rejected the finding and refused to consider compensation. He said the report was inconclusive, contradictory and based on opinion, not fact.
“The issue of compensation isn’t in the equation at this stage because there is no question of our liability,” he said.
While expressing sympathy for the fire victims, he said he had an obligation to his one million customers not to pay on the evidence.
“A business doesn’t just come out and pay if there’s no rational evidence to suggest it ought to, so I’ve got to balance those two moral obligations,” he said.
Mr Biggs said Western Power, and by extension the Barnett government, were behaving disgracefully. He has spent eight months living in a small caravan on his burnt-out property. He was insured, but said it did not begin to cover his losses.
“It’s morally wrong and unjust, and we shouldn’t be dragged through the courts,” he said.
Down the road, Ms Jones, who dragged her wheelchair-bound partner, Doug, from their house minutes before it was engulfed in flames, said it had been a devastating experience.
“This latest decision is shocking — I’m pissed off,” she said.
Almost 200 people were affected by the fire and have since been living in caravans, shipping containers and at friends’ homes.
Mr Bowron said that despite releasing a report in February that cleared Western Power, Energy Safety had changed its position after new witnesses provided critical new information.
“The technical evidence emerging since our first report led us to conclude that the only logical explanation for the fire is the failure of the power pole,” he said.
He questioned the reliability of the Western Power network, saying eight more poles had failed in the area since the December fire and there was potential for “another Toodyay”.
Apart from its internal investigation, Mr Bowron said Energy Safety had engaged two external metallurgical consulting firms, a structural timber scientist, a consulting engineering firm and senior engineering specialists from the universities of Western Australia and NSW.