Long term fire safety sought

By Rick Bayne

SOUTH-WEST VICTORIAN dairy farmers fighting for compensation after the St Patrick’s Day fires say their campaign goes beyond a financial payout — they want to make sure it never happens again.

Nearly 12 months after bushfires burnt 40 000 ha in the region, dairy farmers are continuing their battle for long-lasting changes to ensure safety across regional Victoria.

An Energy Safe Victoria investigation concluded The Sisters/Garvoc fire — which damaged many dairy farms — started when a broken power pole snapped due to decay and termite infestation. Energy Safe Victoria said Powercor’s inspection regime failed to identify that the pole was compromised.

Powercor has since removed eight poles on one line and nine on another and is checking a further 17 000 wooden poles across the south-west.

Some farmers affected by the 2018 blaze are dealing directly with Powercor for compensation, some are working through insurance agencies and a separate class action has been launched.

Most insurance companies have decided to take their own legal action, using the same legal company for a more streamlined process.

Jill Porter is one of the farmers working through insurance companies and said the process was nowhere near being finalised.

“Hopefully it will be timely, but it’s not going to happen in the next few weeks,” she said.

Powercor has made a 50 per cent offer to victims of a fire at Terang, but has not offered compensation for the Garvoc/The Sisters fire.

Mrs Porter, who farms on Terang-Framlingham Rd which was damaged by the Garvoc/The Sisters blaze, said she was pleased potentially dangerous poles were being reviewed but it needed to be put in context.

“They own 650 000 poles and they’re auditing 17 000,” she said. “They’re looking from Hamilton to Port Campbell which gives me some degree of reassurance, but what about the rest of the state?”

Mrs Porter said farmers had been able to broker a deal to cover legal costs but the settlement process would not cover 100 per cent of losses.

“That’s frustrating and we also want to make sure there’s liability. It’s horrific but you pick yourself up and get on with it; making sure this doesn’t happen again is my priority.”

Mrs Porter said previous inquiries and the Royal Commission after Black Saturday had identified dangers associated with electrical infrastructure failure causing fires.

“The government still refuses to take accountability for it and change what needs to happen to reduce the risk,” Mrs Porter said.

“The Royal Commission report recommended replacing SWER lines and 22 kW feeder lines in high bushfire areas but that hasn’t been dealt with properly.

“Regional Victoria 10 years down the track from Black Saturday is no safer.”

Powercor says it invests millions of dollars into ongoing projects that help to reduce bushfire risks across Victoria.

“Powercor has been implementing various strategies, policies and programs designed to reduce the risk of bushfires,” a Powercor spokesperson said.

“Extensive asset inspection programs are conducted throughout the year in accordance with regulated inspection timeframes.

“Any maintenance that is identified is completed within designated policy timeframes to ensure our assets remain fire safe as much as possible all year round.”