Employee warned Essential Energy of 'impending fire situation', Tathra bushfire inquiry told

INQUEST: John Blankenstein visits the home of his parents-in-law to see the devastation caused during the Tathra bushfires. Photo: Karleen Minney.
INQUEST: John Blankenstein visits the home of his parents-in-law to see the devastation caused during the Tathra bushfires. Photo: Karleen Minney.

A bushfire inquiry has heard there were systemic issues around identifying potentially hazardous trees near powerlines at the time of the blaze.

Essential Energy vegetation officer Darrell Worley told the Tathra inquiry on Thursday, he had warned his employer of a potential bushfire hazard near the area where the March 18, 2018, fire originated.

On Monday, the inquiry heard investigators believe the fire was likely caused by dead trees, some dead for years and infested with termites, falling on powerlines.

Under the guidance of Deputy State Coroner Elaine Truscott, 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.

The fire burned through more than 1000 hectares of forest, causing $63.5 million worth of damage, and destroying 56 homes and 35 outbuildings in and around Tathra.

Mr Worley said before the fire he had advised state-owned company Essential Energy of an "impending fire situation" at powerlines at nearby Murrays Flat.

He told the inquiry he had not been advised by contractors of any tree hazards in the easement where investigators believe the fire began.

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The inquiry heard two other fires on the day in the Bega Valley were started by falling branches on power lines.

Mr Worley told the inquiry he told a senior supervisor in 2016 via email and in meetings he did not agree with changes to the structure of inspections for hazards, which left a percentage unchecked.

He said he believed the changes were made in order to "speed things up".

He told the inquiry scoping work had been outsourced by the state government to private companies in 2015, with his role becoming one of auditing any cutting work, and not identifying potential hazards.

Mr Worley said there were times contractors had told him there were no hazards in areas, which upon later inspection had tree branches touching power lines.

He said there were "multiple" times he had been told hazards had been removed when they had not, and he had sent multiple photos to superiors showing insufficient work had been done by contractors.

Mr Worley said he felt contractors were less likely to conduct work in difficult to get to areas, and in the time since he began work in Bega in August, 2016, and the bushfire in 2018 he had not been advised of any possible "fall in" hazards in the Reedy Swamp area.

He told the inquiry Essential Energy had shown an increased interest in doing its own scoping of easements in Bega, Jindabyne, Moruya and Cooma from January of 2018 due to concerns around tree diebacks.

He said he was not aware of any contractor's qualifications in identifying hazardous trees, and agreed he is not formally trained, but received informal training while on the job.

The inquiry heard the area where the fire is believed to have started was last inspected by air by contractor Oberon in the early half of 2016 as part of a pre-summer bushfire inspection.

The area was considered of high risk before 2016, the inquiry heard.

Mr Worley told the inquiry during state-owned Essential Energy restructuring the number of vegetation officers in the Bega and Cooma area dropped from four to just one.

Earlier in the day eye-witness Hamish Dean said he recalled seeing trees "encroaching" on the easement before the fire.

"I didn't think much of it as a potential hazard, but looking back on it, it could have been," he said.

Another eye-witness and Reedy Swamp resident of 31 years, Allan Hull, told the inquiry weather conditions on the day were "severe" and "extreme".

"The wind was really horrific that day,' the former Essential Energy employee said.

"[it was] close to one of the most extreme days I think I've been there."

After returning from Bermagui for lunch, Mr Hull said he received a phonecall from his friend Robert Russell at Jellat Jellat telling him he could see smoke coming from Reedy Swamp.

Mr Hull then drove to the Emma Rd side of the easement near the home of doctor Andrew Thomson.

"I observed flames. it was quite black around the easement," he said. "I saw a tree that was on fire and was laying within the easement, directly under the conductors, I thought."

He said he saw a "log burning severely" as "fire almost consumed the easement", and watched as "flames skyrocketed towards the top of the hill".

"The bush had been basically scorched," he said.

This story Employee warned Essential Energy of 'impending fire situation', inquiry told first appeared on Bega District News.