POWERLINE field testing can't rest with the electricity industry if the state is serious about saving lives, writes MICHAEL GUNTER
Justice Jack Forrest sat in judgment on a civil trial in the Supreme Court this year for a class action by victims of one of Black Saturday's "electricity fires", ignited by sparks from high-voltage powerlines west of Colac.
The ferocious and fast-moving grass fire fortunately did not kill anyone, but the damage bill is expected to be about $10 million.
This is very minor compared to the biggest electricity fire: the Kilmore East one, which killed 119 people as it smashed its way to Flowerdale and Glenburn, via Strathewen, St Andrews and Kinglake.
Since the case was settled at the 11th hour last week no judgment was handed down.
The public will never know how the judge resolved conflicting technical evidence presented in court. Without the judgment and its detailed reasons, this case is a wasted opportunity to update public policy on powerline safety.
The old State Electricity Commission did sporadic research experiments in 1969, in 1974 and in 1977. It began to realise that it had serious problems killing people, when its powerline sparks lit bushfires on hot windy days.
Aluminium powerlines introduced in the 1960s seem to have escalated ignitions compared to the decades before.
The plaintiffs' lawyers in the Pomborneit class action argued that one or two large hot blobs of molten aluminium blew on the wind and ignited a fire 35m downwind of the arcing powerlines.
This may not be what actually happened, and is certainly not the full story as revealed by the SEC's empirical research for Sir Esler Barber's 1977 bushfire inquiry.
If we do not get the science accurately nailed down, then any public policy "fixes" may not work during any future catastrophic fire days.
The time is long overdue after 18 years of privatisation of Victoria's electricity networks, for fire prevention authorities to conduct independent practical research.
There are two key questions:
WHETHER all rural 230-volt lines should have fibreglass spreaders on every span, as the ex-SEC mandated.
WHETHER it is a few large blobs of merely molten aluminium or many white hot incendiary particles of burning aluminium, that are the main danger when live powerlines touch.
The industry should not be relied upon to design or perform realistic field tests, or to give unbiased answers to these questions, because they have too much to lose from adverse results.
In 1969 and in 1977 the SEC reported on its experiments, finding that burning aluminium particles represented the greater risk of grass ignition.
If we want to prevent another Black Saturday catastrophe we would have to be mad to entrust important basic research solely to the electricity industry or its mates.
- Michael Gunter is an electricity safety campaigner