Power line failure inevitable, court told
Where the Kilmore East bushfire started. Photo: Ken Irwin
The ill-fated power line that sparked the Kilmore East fire was "bound to fail" and would not have been replaced to prevent the fire even if defects had been detected beforehand, a court has heard.
Electricity distributor SP Ausnet (SPI) and pole maintenance company Utility Asset Management (UAM) were the first two defendants to a class action brought by about 10,500 people affected by Black Saturday's worst fire on February 7, 2009.
The state's largest civil class action began on Monday with the claimants' lawyer, Robert Richter, QC, arguing that defects on the line and poles should have been reported in simple safety inspections, which would have led the 43-year-old power line to be serviced before Black Saturday. He also argued that the line should have been replaced before then.
The fire began after the live line hit a power pole cable stay, igniting vegetation. A lightning strike had previously initiated cracks that made it susceptible to wind stress, causing its failure.
The fire claimed 119 lives and destroyed the communities of Kinglake , Steels Creek, Chum Creek, Strathewen and Flowerdale.
Jonathan Beach, QC, for SPI, said the cracks in the power line were microscopic and could not have been seen in an earlier inspection. But even if they had been, the line would have been "re-strung" rather than replaced.
"Experts said this conductor was going to fail because of the lightning damage, (evidently)... it was bound to fail," Mr Beach said.
Even if, as Mr Richter argued, dampers should have been fitted to the line to prevent damage from vibrations, they "would only have delayed inevitable failure" and their absence had not caused the fire.
Mr Beach said that while lightning was a "known risk ... none of the experts say (lightning damage to the power line) was or ought to have been detectable."
SPI argued it had fulfilled its duties to take care of the network under law.
"What troubles me about this is the law doesn't... doesn't factor in the the degree of risk," Justice Forrest said. "You are going to tell me the degree of risk is minimal but what if it's an extreme risk? Do we go through this process of you haven't got enough money, you have to go to the regulator and have a high risk situation?"
Mr Beach replied: "If it was an extreme risk, your Honour, we were the first ones to have the commercial incentive if not the imperative to go and fix it."
UAM also focused on arguments that its actions did not cause the fire.
The company's lawyer, Ross Ray, QC, said that an employee had properly inspected the poles on either end of the power line in question from the ground in 2008.
If defects in the poles could have been detected they would have been recorded then, he said. But even if they had been, the poles' "structural integrity" had not been compromised, so they would have stayed in place.
One of the poles remains in use. The other burned down.
The case continues.