A bushfire that devastated the Blue Mountains hamlets of Winmalee and Springwood in October 2013 was ignited by a rotting wattle tree falling on to uninsulated power lines, the opening day of a class action has heard.
Bushfire victims sue power company
Tim Tobin SC, counsel representing the plaintiffs in a class action against Endeavour Energy, describes the moment Marilyn Stubbs, a resident of Linksview Road, Springwood, heard a tree falling on to live power lines owned by the defendants. The plaintiffs allege this ignited the Springwood/ Winmalee bushfire of 2013.
Residents and business owners are suing Endeavour Energy for damages in the NSW Supreme Court, claiming the energy distributor failed to prune or remove a hazardous tree next to a power pole on a property at Linksview Road, Springwood.
Fanned by wind gusts of up to 100km/h on a hot and dry day, the fire destroyed 194 homes and razed 3600 hectares of bush, but remarkably there was no loss of human life.
In his opening address on Wednesday, barrister for the plaintiffs, Tim Tobin, SC, said "the experience was life threatening and terrifying" for the residents, workers and school students caught up in the fast-moving inferno.
Mr Tobin said Endeavour Energy breached its duty of care to maintain appropriate clearance distance between power lines and vegetation.
He said the risks of fires igniting from contact between electricity network assets such as power lines and trees was well-known in the industry.
Mr Tobin said witnesses would describe seeing and hearing an "explosion causing sparks to fly in many directions" at about 1.30pm on October 17, 2013.
"This explosion of trees sent embers flying and looked like fireworks," he said.
Marilyn Stubbs, a resident of Linksview Road, will tell the court she heard a "twang" and a "crackling" noise consistent with a tree striking a conductor.
Mr Tobin said the parties agreed the fire originated somewhere around Linksview Road, but the "precise point of origin" is in dispute.
"We say you'll clearly find the fire was caused by a hazard [sic] tree falling on to power lines," Mr Tobin said.
"This tree fell onto the power lines because it had extensive internal rot. That structural defect was detectable and if Endeavour had adopted reasonable practices, it would have been detected and the tree removed so that it could not fall into the conductors and cause the fire."
Mr Tobin said the company spent about $100 million less on detecting and managing dead, dying, dangerous and visibly damaged trees in the years leading up to the fire than the amount approved by the energy regulator.
"Not only did they not spend [that money], their own internal budgets show they were budgeting for less than half that amount, and that [unspent] money became their profits."
Mr Tobin said in the same period, other energy distributors were expanding their vegetation management programs.
Endeavour Energy is defending the claim and is represented by Dr Andrew Bell, SC. One of its grounds is that it doesn't know where the fire, which burned until November 13, started.
Further, it says trimming the alleged offending tree would not have averted the fire.
The hearing, being held in Sydney before Justice Peter Garling, is being live-streamed to allow affected parties to watch from their homes in the Blue Mountains.
It is expected to last for 50 days.