Australia — On the 10th anniversary of the fatal Tenterden bushfires, WA’s most experienced electrical safety experts have warned that Western Power’s ageing wooden pole network could start more dangerous blazes because of decades of underinvestment.
Clashing power lines caused a fire that killed two women in the small community of Tenterden in the Great Southern 10 years ago today. Clashing lines were also blamed for fires in Toodyay that killed a local teacher in 2007.
Former EnergySafety director Albert Koenig told The West Australian that serious problems remained despite the utility’s significantly increased efforts to replace or fix old wooden poles.
Mr Koenig, who was in charge of the State’s energy watchdog at the time of the Tenterden fires and has rarely commented publicly since stepping down in 2009, said many of the problems with Western Power’s rural grid stemmed from decades of neglect leading up to the 2000s.
The West Australian understands EnergySafety officials still harbour concerns about the state of the network, particularly its susceptibility to pole-top fires, pole failure and clashing conductors or wires.
For today, the Weather Bureau has issued a catastrophic fire danger alert for the Eucla, an extreme fire danger for the Exmouth Gulf Coast and a severe fire danger for the Goldfields and South Interior.
The Tenterden blaze started after 22,000-volt wires clashed in high winds and hot weather, causing an arc that sparked the fire.
Mr Koenig said while he was not privy to the latest information on the issue, the extent of the problems that had been allowed to build up meant they would take years to overcome.
He said there were more than 600,000 wood poles under Western Power’s management but noted that until recently it had been replacing just hundreds a year.
This was despite their average age – many were installed as long ago as the 1970s – and what he said was a widely discredited inspection technique Western Power used to defend the durability of its poles.
“They’re doing all sorts of things now like going around and reinforcing poles and replacing poles at quite a large rate but for a long while there was a substantial inadequacy in their wood pole inspection and their wood pole replacement program,” Mr Koenig said. “Once you get a huge backlog as they did have and to some extent still do have . . . that’s a big problem.”
Nationals MP Max Trenorden, who headed a State parliamentary inquiry that led to scathing findings against Western Power’s stewardship of its wood pole assets, backed Mr Koenig’s claims.
Mr Trenorden said Western Power’s current management was being forced to play catch-up because previous leadership and governments had not taken the issue seriously.
He praised the utility’s greater focus on the matter but said there were many parts of the network that were still at an unacceptable standard and would be at a worrying risk of failure this summer.
“Let’s hope we get away with it but chances are we are going to get more days at 40C and all you need is 50, 60 or 70 knots of wind and some of those lines that haven’t been fixed are at the same risk as they were 10 years ago,” Mr Trenorden said.
Western Power said it had lifted spending on pole replacement and reinforcement to record levels to tackle public safety and reliability concerns.
However, a spokeswoman for the State-owned group noted that returning the network to a sustainable level would take up to 10 years and billions of dollars in investment.
Western Power said it acknowledged the tragic circumstances of the Tenterden blaze and under the leadership of chief executive Paul Italiano it had placed a far greater emphasis on maintaining the network.
The utility had replaced or reinforced 66,000 poles in the past 12 months, including a record 48,479 reinforcements, a 96 per cent increase on the previous year, the spokeswoman said.
In the area around Tenterden, it had completed more than 3000 pole replacements and 12,000 reinforcements “to date”.