Powercor scrapped tree trim plans 10 days before fire

Ten days before a bushfire was sparked under its powerlines, electricity distributor Powercor cancelled plans to cut trees below to focus on areas of "higher priority".

Powercor has pleaded guilty to more than 100 charges for failing to manage risks and hazards to its electricity network, and a further charge for its role in a bushfire in Glenmore, west of Melbourne, in February 2023.

The prosecution is seeking a maximum of roughly $3.8 million in fines for the energy distributor.

Shepparton Magistrates Court heard victim impact statements from farmers, volunteer firefighters and Glenmore residents.

"I've been a member of the Country Fire Authority for over 17 years and the day of the 17th of February 2023 is one, if not the most, confronting day of my Country Fire Authority history," the statement by Rowsley CFA captain Joseph Hammersley read.

He wrote the only reason no houses were lost was planning, preparation and the proactive assembly of firefighters at the station before any fire was reported.

"If it wasn't for the commitment of hard work during the first half an hour of that fire, we would have lost at least four properties and most likely lost lives."

The fire was initially reported about 3.30pm by James Dickinson, who reported treetops had caught fire and were touching the powerlines.

Mr Dickinson was soon joined by the CFA to fight the fire, but the power line wasn't de-energised until 9.35pm, according to the case summary.

"This fire could easily have been avoided if the required fire prevention measures had been completed and maintained," Mr Hammersley wrote.

The court heard in the 11 months to the September before the fire, EnergySafe enforcement officers noted 140 instances of vegetation reaching within the minimum clearance space of power lines.

Powercor first recorded non-compliant clearance of the Glenmore span in October 2020 and inspected it three more times before the 2023 blaze.

"They recorded an incremental decrease in the clearance space between the closest vegetation and the conductor," prosecuting barrister Andrew Woods told the court.

"Which is indicative of no cutting having occurred between inspections."

A Powercor employee inspecting the line almost a year before the fire had recommended trimming eucalyptus trees below, but Powercor scrapped the plan 10 days before the fire.

"On 7 February, 2023 Powercor cancelled the allocation of the span for cutting of the vegetation beneath the electric lines ... to focus resources on other areas considered to be of highest priority," Mr Woods told the court.

Powercor's defence counsel Krystyna Grinberg said a lack of interstate contractors during COVID-19 lockdowns had created a backlog in vegetation maintenance that was still ongoing.

"This is certainly not a case where there was a wilful disregard for the actual consequences of the risk," she told the court.

Ms Grinberg asked the court to consider Powercor's early guilty plea and an expansion of annual inspections to its entire network, rather than just in high bushfire risk areas.

She added the distributor had paid three of four compensation requests relating to Glenmore and was processing the fourth.

Magistrate Amina Bhai is expected to hand down her decision on May 8.

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