Western Power ' incompetence' blamed for Parkerville bushfire
LAWYERS for the dozens of families who lost homes in the Parkerville bushfire have launched a blistering opening attack on Western Power, saying the power company’s incompetence left a power pole in such a “deplorable and disgraceful” condition it was able to be blown over by a gust of wind – sparking the blaze which devastated the hills community.
The long-awaited class action over the 2014 blaze, which destroyed 57 homes and wrecked many more, began in WA’s Supreme Court today, on behalf of 189 affected residents and property owners.
Garry and Sandra Elwood are the only devastated homeowners formally going up against Western Power and their contractor Theiss.
But their experience is being used as the example by lawyers Slater and Gordon, who intend to prove that it was up to Western Power to make sure the privately owned power pole was safe enough to carry their cables, even though it was not owned by them.
That pole was on land owned by long-time resident Noreen Merle Campbell, who was in her 80s at the time of the fire and is now also being sued.
Lachlan Armstrong QC, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, spent two hours this morning going through the outline of the case that is set to span seven weeks scheduled for the trial.
Mr Armstrong described how the pole at the centre of the trial, parts of which lay on a table in the court, had been in place since at least 1985, but would appear to have never been inspected.
By 2014, it had become so rotten and riddled with termites that only four per cent of the wood remained at its base.
As winds blew and temperatures soared on January 12, 2014 the pole collapsed causing arcing in a box lower down the pole which sparked the fire which swept through the area with devastating effect.
“There were no fatalities, but that was just good fortune,” Mr Armstrong said.
“It went from an ordinary Saturday morning to a cataclysm on a Saturday afternoon … and this was not an act of God.”
Instead, the plaintiffs say it was a combination of Western Power’s lack of inspections and the lack of guidance and training given to Theiss linesmen which left the pole in such a state it collapsed.
Theiss had carried out work around the pole twice in the months leading up to the pole, including two days prior to the fire, Mr Armstrong said.
That work should have been preceded by a basic safety check of the pole which would have to take more tension – which would have simply required it being hit with a hammer hard enough to make it ring.
But Mr Armstrong said that simply did not happen and if it had, the rotten, cracked, pole would have clearly been seen as not safe.
Mr Armstrong also pointed out Western Power’s appalling record of inspection of wooden poles, which were twice criticised by power regulators in 2006 and 2008.
He also said when they finally did agree to send out pamphlets urging private pole owners to get them checked regularly, they did not send one to Mrs Campbell because they were trying to save money on the mailout.
Speaking ahead of the trial, Slater and Gordon Practice Group Leader Rory Walsh said Western Power’s aged wooden “have caused a pole failure rate ten times that of other utilities”.
“Alarmingly, that figure excludes poles on private property, which Western Australia does not inspect or maintain unlike every other bushfire-prone state in Australia,’ he said
“We will argue that the Parkerville blaze was not a natural accident that residents simply have to accept as an ordinary risk of living in a bushfire-prone region.
“Western Power’s attitude to private poles poses a very real risk for the public and one which the energy regulator appears unable or unwilling to address.”
Mr and Mrs Elwood, who were in court, said her family and the broader community had been waiting a long time for this case to finally be heard.
“It has been four long, hard years and so many people in the community are still waiting for their insurance money and they’re doing it really tough,” Mrs Elwood said.
“We have all banded together and tried to stay optimistic, but it is definitely time the Perth Hills community had its day in court.
“The dangerous condition of the pole was completely missed by linesmen employed by Thiess doing contract work for Western Power, six months before the pole collapsed and again as recently as 36 hours before it fell and sparked the blaze.
“In our view, these decisions and actions amount to deplorable incompetence and are inexcusable in the circumstances.”
“This was a wholly avoidable bushfire”.
The trial is also being live streamed via the court website, the first time that has happened in WA courts.