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'Forgotten' bushfire victims still in limbo

Date

Courtney Trenwith

Tow firefighters enjoying a well-earned beer after saving lives and houses. Photo: Sean Blocksidge Click for more photos

Margaret River bushfire

The blaze has ripped through Margaret River and Gracetown this afternoon. 

Scores of bushfire victims are still in limbo and unable to rebuild their lives years later because they have not been fully compensated, a parliamentary committee has heard.

Several residents affected by fires in Toodyay, Kelmscott and Margaret River since 2007 claimed a lack of compassion and financial assistance from the state government was exacerbating their grief and ability to move on, even in cases when the government had accepted responsibility.

Many were still living in temporary accommodation because they could not afford to rebuild their homes, while businesses were losing tens of thousands of dollars in lost trade.

Robyn Lewis said she was selling her home to help her parents June and Harry Fraser, who lost their house during the Kelmscott bushfire in January, 2011.

Her parents, aged 80 and 90, have been living in her sister's lounge room for nearly two years because they have no income to top up the small insurance payout they received.

Ms Lewis will use the proceeds of the sale of her home and their insurance payout to build on their Kelmscott land and the three would live in the new house.

"We're just desperate to get them back home," she said outside the committee hearing.

Ms Lewis said Kelmscott residents felt forgotten because they had not received any state government assistance, while victims of other bushfires had.

The government claims it is not liable to provide compensation because it did not cause the fire, which was started by an off-duty police officer using an angle grinder.

However, Ms Lewis said poor management of the blaze meant homes that could have been saved were not.

Firefighters were instructed only to save lives and Ms Lewis said she witnessed some watch homes catch alight without attempting to save them, yet no one needed help evacuating.

"FESA didn't carry anybody out, we all got out on our own," she said.

"But I tell you what, we wouldn't leave now; lives would be put at risk, people would stay because they know they can't count on FESA to protect homes."

Laurie Biggs, whose home was destroyed during the 2009 Toodyay bushfire, said he was upset the government was refusing to fully compensate victims despite accepting that Western Power was responsible for the fire.

Victims were intimidated by the mitigation process and many had accepted "a pittance" of what they lost because "the stress was intolerable".

"I felt back then after the fire that we were being betrayed by the government and I still feel very angry about it," he said.

"The government has made the victims fight tooth and nail to get any reasonable compensation, adding to our stress and our grief."

He said while the government claimed there had been no loss of life from a bushfire in the past three years, it was arguable that three deaths could be attributed to bushfires, several people had been admitted to hospital suffering related stress and others had attempted to commit suicide.

"None of that seems to be taken into consideration," he said.

"We lost our life as we knew it at the time."

Margaret River resident Steve Enright told the committee he had lost time for his family, work and leisure because he was so busy attempting to rebuild a home for his family.

They were still in limbo a year after the bushfire, which was started by a Department of Environment and Conservation prescribed burn that got out of control.

His friend John Bradbury, whose home was the first to be burnt on November 23, said the community was highly anxious about the upcoming fire season and did not believe authorities were prepared.

Meanwhile, former Labor minister and Toodyay resident Larry Graham the told the committee, which is conducting an inquiry into the state's preparedness for the upcoming bushfire season, that a senior Western Power manager covered up an independent report that blamed the utility for the 2007 Toodyay bushfire.

He claimed Western Power asked independent assessor Aaron Gingis to investigate the 2007 fire and provide an exclusive report that would help it defend any legal proceedings against it.

But when the report found Western Power caused the blaze, which destroyed dozens of homes, it was thrown aside and nothing was done to address the identified problem, Mr Graham alleged.

The same person who received the report also signed off on the only report that exonerates Western Power from blame for the 2009 Toodyay fire, which destroyed a further 37 homes, he said.

Mr Graham said the evidence was damning and proved Western Power chief executive officer Paul Italiano had misled the Community Development and Justice Committee on October 24, when he said the utility was acting responsibly in providing some compensation without accepting blame.

"[The senior Western Power manager] asked [Mr Gingis] to write a report that was favourable to them in a legal defence," Mr Graham said.

"That's not an organisation that is seeking to accept responsibility."

Western Power has comprehensively denied the allegation.

A spokeswoman said Mr Gingis volunteered a preliminary report that stated the cause of the 2007 Toodyay fire was lightning and not Western Power.

But Western Power rejected his theory and accepted that its assets caused the 2007 fire and made compensation payments.

The spokeswoman said this was consistent with evidence provided to the committee by the utility and Mr Italiano and neither had been misleading.

Mr Graham said bushfires across WA had caused more than $300 million in damage during the past five years.

"Everyone single one of those fires has been caused either by direct government action or government inaction," he said.

The committee is expected to report early next month.

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