Australia — MANY victims of the most destructive Black Saturday bushfire were given no warning of the deadly inferno approaching – or were warned hours after the firestorm struck – the Supreme Court has heard.
Jonathan Beach, QC, for electricity provider SPI Electricity, said the warnings that were given by state government agencies – including the CFA, Department of Environment and Sustainability and Victoria Police – to some communities before the firefront hit were “too little and too late”.
“We say there was an appreciation by state authorities the fire was out of control after about 12.30pm,” Mr Beach said in the third day of a massive civil class action trial.
He said authorities failed to give any warning to some communities in danger, including Strathewen, which was hit by the fire about 3.42pm, killing 22 people.
Mr Beach said other areas were warned too late, such as Kinglake West, where 16 people died. The fire hit the area at 3.51pm but the CFA warning appeared on their website at 6.48pm, he said.
The court heard there was insufficient warnings disseminated via the CFA and DSE websites, the bushfire information phone line and radio.
Mr Beach said of the 9879 calls to the phone line that were put on hold, 8125 – more than 80 per cent – were abandoned.
SPI alleges many of the 119 people killed in the Kilmore fire were robbed of the chance to leave early and save themselves on February 7, 2009.
The blaze, started by a faulty SPI powerline, also destroyed 1200 homes and caused an estimated $1 billion damage.
Lead plaintiff Carol Ann Matthews, who lost her 22-year-old son in the fire, is suing SPI, powerline maintenance contractor Utility Services Corporation and the state authorities for the psychological damage she suffered as a result.
The power companies are counter-suing the state entities for failing to give appropriate warnings about the bushfire.
Mrs Matthews represents more than 10,000 group members – including Darrin Gibson, who lost his partner, their three 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 it should have to prevent the old and damaged electrical conductor from sparking the deadly fire.
Mrs Matthews is also suing the DSE for allegedly failing to reduce fuel loads.
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.