Australia — Sam Matthews received no warning that a “fire tornado” was headed for his Victorian home before he was burned to death inside it on Black Saturday, a court has heard.
He had been checking the Country Fire Authority (CFA) website and although there were no warnings about a threat in the area, he was on the phone telling his mother that things could get worse.
“Oh my God, there are flames everywhere,” he told her, before she heard the windows explode.
Carol Matthews wept in the Victorian Supreme Court yesterday as she watched footage of the firestorm that swept through St Andrews and claimed the life of her 22-year-old son on February 7, 2009.
She is leading a class action of more than 10,000 members, suing electricity provider SPI Electricity for compensation, alleging its negligence in failing to maintain power lines sparked the Kilmore East blaze that killed 119 people and destroyed 1242 homes.
Opening what is expected to be a 10-month trial, Robert Richter QC, for Mrs Matthews, said there was no question that SPI had started the blaze.
He said the blaze began in a paddock when a faulty, old, corroded power line snapped, recoiled and became entangled with another wire.
“This fire was entirely preventable,” he told Justice Jack Forrest yesterday.
“With known and reasonable steps taken in time, SPI could and should have prevented it.”
SPI proposes the power line failure was caused by a lightning strike.
Richter said the failed power line was 43 years old and SPI should have expected that it would have been struck by lightning several times over the period, causing fractures.
“They knew the importance of scheduled replacement of old assets in high-risk bushfire areas,” he said.
“SPI might be right when they said we did nothing to cause the conductor to fail on that day.
“It’s true, they did nothing.
“That’s precisely why this action is being brought.”
Richter said SPI was unaware of information critical to the condition of its conductors.
They had no record that the line, which had previously failed, was corroded, degraded and had been damaged by previous lightning strikes, he said.
SPI had a “run to failure” policy which was part of their reactive strategy to maintenance, he said.
“SPI had no pre-emptive program in place for replacing aged, damaged or at risk conductors before they failed and fell to the ground,” the court heard.
Richter said in the seven years before Black Saturday, SPI underspent on maintenance by $A95 million, despite making more money.
The Kilmore East blaze could have been prevented if SPI had followed its own policy and installed $A300 worth of vibration dampers to the line to stop it from breaking, he said.
The group is also suing the CFA, police and environment department for failing to warn them of the blaze.
Jenny Clarke, who lost her son and two grandchildren when her Kinglake home was destroyed, said they would have fled if they were warned.
“At five o’clock … we were sitting with a glass of wine on the balcony. At six o’clock the house burnt to the ground,” she said.