Coroner finds AusNet could have prevented Marysville’s devastating Black Saturday bushfire
December 4, 2015
Marysville, the day after the 2009 bushfire. Photo: Keith Pakenham/CFA Public Affairs
The Black Saturday bushfire that destroyed Marysville could have been prevented if a power company had followed basic safety standards, according to an explosive coronial finding.
For the first time, power company AusNet Services has been held directly responsible in court for causing the 2009 bushfire, which killed 40 people, levelled hundreds of homes, and caused millions of dollars worth of damage.
CFA Fireman Rodney Ridd as the Murrindindi fire approaches his property in February 2009. Photo: Justin McManus
State Coroner Judge Ian Gray, in delivering an in-chambers finding nearly seven years after the disaster, outlined extraordinary details which have never before been aired in public.
The coroner’s finding concludes that, not only did AusNet’s power assets cause the devastating fire, but noted how experts, police, and witnesses had found:
Key evidence had gone missing.
The power pole design itself was flawed, failing AusNet’s own standards.
The risk of the power line failing was foreseeable.
Following basic procedures should have prevented the disaster.
AusNet kept no records of repair work completed on the faulty power line, which altered its design in the days following the disaster.
An aerial shot of the devastation in Marysville, two days after Black Saturday. Photo: Craig Abraham
The coroner’s finding is a significant development because it appears to challenge the “no-fault” aspect of the $300 million class action settlement over the bushfire, which was reached earlier this year before any evidence could be heard in court,and brought needed closure to many residents.
It also raises key questions about the effectiveness of Energy Safe Victoria (ESV) to monitor and ensure safety standards are maintained across the electrical network during a severe bushfire season.
Michael Gunter, an energy industry commentator who had asked for an inquest into bushfires and power line safety, said the coroner’s finding is a concerning development.
A burnt-out hay shed seen a week after Black Saturday close to where a power line fell on a fence, igniting the Murrindindi-Marysville bushbure. Photo: Justin McManus
“I strongly feel that someone should be held accountable for what happened,” he said.
AusNet Services said it had the deepest sympathy for those impacted by the Black Saturday bushfires, but disagreed with the coroner’s conclusions.
“We don’t agree with the [Coroner’s] findings as they were determined without a hearing and the evidence upon which they are based was untested,” a company spokesman said.
The scene in Marysville the day after the fire. Photo: Keith Pakenham/CFA Public Affairs
The Murrindindi-Marysville bushfire started at 2.45pm on February 7, 2009 along Wilhelmina Falls Road in Murrindindi, south of Yea, near a disused sawmill.
The fire rapidly became an out-of-control inferno before a wind change sent the bushfire straight into Marysville.
The coroner found an AusNet power line between two poles had snapped and fell across the road, electrifying a fence and igniting vegetation.
Lead plantiff and Marysville bushfire survivor Dr Katherine Rowe at a press conference in February this year after the class action settlement was reached. Photo: Luis Ascui
A stay wire, which is drilled into the ground to secure one of the poles, was placed too close to the 22,000-volt line, and this lack of clearance caused electrical arcing, the coroner found.
The power line failed on the morning of Black Saturday, but it was turned on again when AusNet workers couldn’t find the fault.
The line failed within seconds of being re-connected.
An expert report relied on by the coroner found “the construction was flawed” and that following known procedures “should have prevented the failure ‚Ä¶ and the subsequent damage that resulted”.
Judge Gray said he would not hold an inquest, however, to avoid duplicating work completed by the royal commission and the class action lawsuit.
“I convey my sincere condolences to the families of the 40 people who died as a result of the Murrindindi fire,” he wrote.
Energy Safe Victoria said it had insufficient evidence to prove to the required criminal standard that AusNet had breached its general duties on Black Saturday.
“The powers and resources of ESV were increased following the royal commission and all the recommendations relating to power line safety have either been completed or have substantially progressed,” a spokeswoman said.