Inexperienced worker inspected powerline that caused Black Saturday bushfire, court hears

Inexperienced worker inspected powerline that caused Black Saturday bushfire, court hears

05 March 2013

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Australia — THE damage caused by a lightning strike to the powerline that sparked a deadly Black Saturday bushfire which killed 119 people was so small it was undetectable, the Supreme Court has heard.

Jonathan Beach, QC, for electricity provider SPI Electricity, said no reasonable inspector could have noticed the microscopic damage that experts say occurred prior to the February 7, 2009 fire.

“Of course lightning is a known risk… the issue for Your Honour is whether the lightning damage on this line was detectable or not,” Mr Beach said today during his opening argument on the second day of the Kilmore East-King Lake bushfire class action.

He said there was no rational reason why the company would have replaced the line or installed $6 vibration dampers to reduce the impact of wind on the line, which would not have made a difference during the extreme weather conditions of Black Saturday.

Lead plaintiff Carol Ann Matthews, who lost her 22-year-old son in the fire, is suing the company, as well as contractor Utility Services Corporation, which was responsible for the inspection and maintenance of the powerline.

It was alleged the man who inspected the line in February 2008, one year prior to the fatal blaze, was incompetent, insufficiently trained and had previously failed four audits of his inspections.

But Ross Ray, QC, for USC, said the inspector would have seen a broken strand of a steel conductor had it been waving in the air or missing, as alleged.

The fire allegedly started in Kilmore East around 11.45am when a 1,043 metre power line broke, recoiled and discharged electricity, causing vegetation to ignite.

The blaze killed 119 people, destroyed 1200 homes and caused an estimated $1 billion worth of damage.

Mrs Matthews represents more than 10,000 group members – including Darrin Gibson, who lost his partner, their three young children, and parts of both his feet, which melted as he tried to save his family.

Robert Richter, QC, for Mrs Matthews, told the court on Monday SPI had not taken the steps they should have to prevent the old and damaged electrical conductor from sparking the deadly fire.

Mrs Matthews is also suing the Department of Sustainability and Environment for allegedly failing to reduce fuel loads.

The DSE, CFA and Victoria Police are also facing allegations they failed to give appropriate warnings about the bushfire.

All the defendants deny the allegations and are fighting the claims in a trail expected to last nine months.

In two separate recovery proceedings, the state government entities are claiming compensation for damage to government property from SPI and USC.

The Transport Accident Commission and the Victorian Workcover Authority are also claiming indemnity from payments made as a result of the bushfire from the power companies.

The Black Saturday bushfires in February 2009 killed 173 people.

Four cases brought in relation to the other fires have settled.


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