A series of legal cases involving south-west Victorian dairy farmers seeking compensation after major bushfires in 2018 is coming to a close.
At least two cases have been settled, and a Supreme Court civil trial is progressing in Melbourne.
In total, the fires on March 17 burnt about 40 000 ha in the region, destroying more than 20 houses and damaging dozens of dairy farms.
A civil case over the Garvoc fire against Powercor Australia Ltd and pole inspection contractor Electrix Pty Ltd is being heard before Justice Ginnane.
In a plaintiff’s written outline submitted to the court by law firm Hall and Wilcox, it is claimed the bushfire near Garvoc started as a result of the collapse of an electricity distribution pole due to wood rot and termite attack.
The outline said evidence would be presented to show a conical or vase-shaped void about two metres’ high had developed inside the pole.
“The collapse was the result of wood rot and termite attack which had weakened its bending strength to an extent that it was unable to withstand the applied wind load that day.”
The Garvoc dire resulted in the destruction of two homes and 19 sheds. Thirty-seven plaintiffs in the proceedings sustained losses of $19.1 million, about $11.1 million of which are uninsured losses.
The outline says many of the plaintiffs are in the dairy farming business and have sustained business losses due to the impacts of the fire.
The plaintiffs claim Powercor’s inspection systems were inadequate to identify and deal with poles operating at elevated risk of in-service failure, that ‘red flag’ characteristics of the pole ought to have been picked up and that it failed to train, supervise and audit Electrix’s inspection personnel.
The outline claims the pole was not in a fit state to be used for the transmission of electricity the day of the fire.
It says the inspections by Electrix were incompetent in that they left the pole in service.
The pole was made of Mountain Grey Gum, a species with no termite resistance which is characterised as moderately durable timber that has an untreated in-ground service life of five to 15 years. The pole was double-staked in 1994.
Along with several expert witnesses, a number of farmers were being called to testify about their losses.
A spokeswoman for Powercor said the electricity company would not be commenting while the case was before the court.
Maddens Lawyers announced in October that an in-principle settlement had been reached in a class action for the Terang-Cobden bushfire, including claims for loss and damage arising as a result of peat fires at Lake Cobrico and Lake Elingamite.
It had been alleged the Terang/Cobden fire ignited near the Terang Power Substation as a result of clashing conductors. It was alleged the fire could have been avoided by the appropriate management of electrical assets.
A Powercor spokeswoman said the company acknowledged the fires had been devastating for landowners and the community. “We are pleased to have reached a settlement agreement for the Terang fire with all parties,” she said.
The proposed settlement for those involved in the class action is subject to approval by the Supreme Court and is without admission of liability by Powercor.
Maddens Lawyers had earlier announced a proposed confidential settlement had been reached between the parties in a separate Garvoc bushfire class action.
Maddens Lawyers Class Action Principal Kathryn Emeny said the law firm was pleased to achieve a positive result for local farmers and the Garvoc community.
“We have commenced the settlement approval process with the Court and will do our best to advance that process as quickly as possible so that compensation payments can be made to class action participants sooner rather than later,” Ms Emeny said.
Maddens Lawyers represented 40 residents, landowners and businesses impacted by the bushfire who suffered damages in excess of $3 million. The class action was started in the Supreme Court in March 2018 and a trial had been due to start in November 2019.
Earlier this year Powercor said in a statement that additional inspections of all power poles across the south west region had confirmed the electricity network was in safe working condition.
Of the 19 663 poles tested, only nine have been replaced as a priority after being rated as unserviceable.
Powercor chief executive Tim Rourke said: “We are confident in the network to deliver safe and reliable power to the south-west community.”
Of the nine poles replaced, only one was due to levels of sound wood. Four had been struck by lightning during recent storms and four were due to visual appearance.
Earlier 15 poles were removed from the Sparrow and Craven Spur lines near Terang during December 2018 and January 2019 after community members raised concerns about the appearance and age of poles.
The inspections were in addition to Powercor’s annual safety program.