Toodyay farmers have confirmed they are gathering evidence to mount a compensation claim against Wes

15 Feb, 2007 07:00 PM
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Toodyay farmer Frank Panizza lost 95pc of his pasture while other farmers in the area suffered fire damage on up to 90pc of their properties.

Mr Panizza confirmed he was acting as the first point of contact for the claim which he said shared remarkable similarities to a case made against Western Power, resulting from a bush fire at Tenterden in 2003.

The Tenterden fire was started by sparks from clashing power lines, leading to the deaths of two women and causing millions of dollars in property damage.

Toodyay farmers have already met several times to discuss the basis for the latest compensation claim against Western Power after it was confirmed clashing power lines caused the recent fire which impacted on an estimated 35 farms and landowners.

Mr Panizza estimated the class action claim could reach as much as $15 million and was made up of a number of large and small claims, some in the vicinity of $1m.

³I am encouraging anyone who has suffered loss or damage resulting from the fire, be it big or small, to pursue action against Western Power,² Mr Panizza said.

³I have no idea what the final damage bill will be but so far the losses suffered by farmers have been devastating and phenomenal.

³We¹ve suffered from loss of income and top soil erosion while fencing, live-stock, feed-stock, hay, straw, pasture and water supplies have all been obliterated by the fire.

³We have suffered substantial losses and therefore should be entitled to seek some sort of compensation.²

Mr Panizza was still calculating the exact damage bill to his own farm but said the clean up exercise alone would take months and would cost close to $100,000.

He said concerns had been raised by local farmers in the past about risks associated with sagging power lines and general maintenance of the ageing network.

³The power poles were placed too far apart and there has been numerous times in the past where these lines have clashed,² he said.

³There is no way this fire was caused by a freak accident.²

A Western Power spokesperson said any compensation claim hinged on the issue of negligence but the initial report, conducted by the Office of Energy Safety, did not find Western Power to be negligent.

Western Power is conducting a further investigation using independent experts to examine what may have caused the lines to clash. This investigation may take a further six to eight weeks.

The spokesperson said that this line had withstood extreme weather conditions without incident for more than 40 years.

The investigation will attempt to determine whether a freak wind storm could have caused the power lines to clash and ignite the fire.

³It may be that no cause for the incident is ever found,² the spokesperson said.

Western Power has engaged insurance assessors to examine the fire damage and establish an exact damage bill in order to get ahead of the issue in the event that adverse findings are made against them.

The insurance assessors have been meeting with local farmers to assess the extent of fire damage to producer¹s live-stock, pasture, machinery and other areas of their farm business.

Western Power has also been assisting the local community in its clean up exercise.

The Toodyay fire started on a property less than 12km from the historic Wheatbelt town on Chatcup Road and spread at a rapid rate to the east and south east of the town, torching more than 5,500ha of farm and bush land in its wake.

The WA Opposition said that the death of the local school teacher, who died while trying to flee the fire, could have been avoided if Western Power heeded warnings to carry out repairs to a line that sparked the blaze.

Deputy Opposition Leader Troy Buswell said it was the second fatal fire caused by Western Power lines in the past four years.

³That sort of warning in the peak of summer in a regional area would have sent alarm bells ringing, and it¹s a terrible indictment on the culture in Western Power,² he said.

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