Coronial inquiry hears regulator had been critical of Essential Energy bushfire risk management

The bushfire caused $63.5million worth of damage, destroying 56 homes in and around Tathra in 2018. Photo: @cbowles14Pretty
The bushfire caused $63.5million worth of damage, destroying 56 homes in and around Tathra in 2018. Photo: @cbowles14Pretty

Day five of the March 2018 Reedy Swamp/Tathra bushfire coronial inquiry focused on state-owned company Essential Energy's alleged failure to properly manage bushfire risks around the time of the fire.

The company's manager of external delivery, Patrick Kelleher, was questioned on Friday over the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal's late-2017 audit, which found the company was not complying with its requirements around managing bushfire risks.

The regulator said the company had failed to properly complete vegetation clearance work, which at the time was contracted to Asplundh Tree Expert, who had subcontractor scoping work to Pinnacle ArborPro.

The fire caused $63.5million worth of damage, destroying 56 homes in and around Tathra.

The three-week long inquiry will investigate the origin and cause of the fire, as well as the management of energy infrastructure, the management of fuel loads before the fire and the response of emergency services.

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Mr Kelleher said following "robust" talks, Essential Energy agreed to address high-risk bushfire defects by October 2019, and low-level defects by 2021.

He said the cost and availability of better training for identifying hazard trees was seen as an issue by the company.

The inquiry heard the last pre-summer bushfire inspection of the Reedy Swamp easement was completed in 2016.

Mr Kelleher told the inquiry the annual cost of vegetation management in comparison to the company's total earnings was "modest", and arboricultural consultants ENSPEC were approached this year to develop better training for identifying hazard trees.

The inquiry heard Asplundh operations manager Mark Bennett will likely give evidence the issue of hazard trees not being identified was raised in an internal Essential Energy audit, and there were concerns the required time period of six months in dealing with hazard trees after they were identified was too long.

When asked by Deputy State Coroner Elaine Truscott whether local employees would be more committed to identifying defects than contractors, Mr Kelleher said while he "can understand that opinion" he does not agree with it.

Essential Energy's network risk manager Ian Fitzpatrick told the inquiry, at the time, infrastructure was set to allow electricity to flow through a powerline for six seconds after a fault was recognised, even on total fire ban days.

Former Bega vegetation officer and current Essential Energy program compliance auditor Robert Saric also gave evidence of Friday, saying the regions "undulating hills" required scopers carry out "a lot" of walking to properly check for hazards.

He and Mr Worley searched the Reedy Swamp area where investigators believe the fire started after the bushfire, taking photographic evidence of downed lines, a fallen tree at the base of a powerpole and downed conductors.

The inquiry was told arborist Marcus Lodge will likely tell the inquiry more training is needed in identifying dead, dying and structurally unsound trees.

Day one of the inquiry heard Mr Lodge believes termites had likely damaged decaying dead trees around the easement, causing them to fall in high winds.

This story Regulator was critical of Essential Energy bushfire risk management first appeared on Bega District News.