Australia — Seventy per cent of the 173 deaths due to the Black Saturday bushfires were caused by the failure of electricity assets, the Bushfires Royal Commission has been told.
Tim Tobin, SC, a lawyer representing 1100 people and businesses involved in class actions against power companies, aired the deaths figure while cross-examining a senior officer from the CFA, Steve Warrington.
Mr Tobin asked Mr Warrington what the CFA had done before February 7 to guard against power asset failures, saying that electricity assets had caused major fatal fires at other times in Victoria, including in 1969, 1977 and 1983.
”Mr Hollowood [Detective Superintendent] has just given evidence that, in his assessment, 70 per cent of the deaths approximately that occurred here [on Black Saturday], occurred from electricity asset failures in some way,” Mr Tobin said.
”In so far as those three fires [of ’69, ’77 and ’83] together with this fire have been the fires that have caused the most public death, and no other fires caused public deaths of any magnitude in the last 40 years, was there anything done within the system, in the planning before the 7th of February, to guard against the consequences of electricity assets – which have proved to be the major cause of death in fires over the last 40 years?” Mr Tobin asked.
In response to Mr Tobin’s questioning, a lawyer representing power company SP AusNet, Bernard Quinn, said ”no evidential foundation” had been put to the commission regarding Mr Tobin’s comments about death figures.
A spokesperson for SP AusNet later told The Age: ”This is an unsubstantiated claim and pure speculation given the police investigations and the royal commission are yet to conclude inquiries into the causes of any of the fires, and we regret Mr Tobin endeavouring to pre-empt the findings of these inquiries.”
The spokesperson said SP AusNet fully supported the royal commission.
Mr Warrington said he had no specific knowledge of the 70 per cent death figure used by Mr Tobin. But he said he was aware that power lines could cause fires.
”We’re obviously aware that high-wind events and particularly with a history of expansion and contraction of power lines, yes, I’m aware of the broad history of the power industry being involved in fire starts,” he said.
Mr Warrington, a deputy chief officer of the CFA, said that during his CFA employment he had worked with the power industry to help produce a code of practice covering ”privately owned” power lines.
”We’ve got partnerships with whoever we can to mitigate risks,” he said. ”I don’t think any of us, including the power industry, wants to have products or assets that start fires,” he said.
In other evidence yesterday:
– Commissioner Ron McLeod suggested there was much duplication of CFA roles inside a key emergency centre on Black Saturday and that an outsider would have a ”sense of confusion” about CFA operations in it.
– Mr Warrington said he no longer had the mobile phone that he used on the day to inform concerned stakeholders via SMS messages about the fires as he worked in the emergency centre.
– Mr Warrington said that at times in this centre on February 7 he felt he was ”sitting on the bench and I was ready to come off the bench if required. While I was on the bench there was other activities I could perform.”
– A closed session was held that examined the deaths of seven people in shelters on private property, which included evidence from Detective Superintendent Hollowood.
Under questioning about the mobile phone by Jack Rush, QC, senior counsel assisting the commission, Mr Warrington said it had stopped working. ”The phone, I think it had water in it or something and it didn’t work. It wasn’t a legitimate thing to hide any messages. We made some effort to try and obtain those messages,” he said.