Police ignored Black Saturday evidence
Police ignored evidence that the Black Saturday bushfire that razed Marysville may have been sparked by electrical faults.
Police ignored evidence that the Black Saturday bushfire that razed Marysville may have been sparked by electrical faults. POLICE ignored strong evidence that the bushfire that razed Marysville on Black Saturday may have been sparked by electrical faults, and instead pursued for 2? years the theory of a lone arsonist, which they dumped without explanation last week.The Sunday Age can also reveal that two SP AusNet employees attending a power fault at the Murrindindi Mill, where the deadly fire started, helped to bring the prime arson suspect, long-time CFA member Ron Philpott, to police attention.Witnesses say a series of loud explosions, which sounded like ''metal on metal'', were heard just before the Murrindindi-Marysville blaze erupted. The fire ultimately claimed 40 lives.The Sunday Age has been told a power line was seen lying across a road, a fence and into a paddock, and power in the local area was lost - once at 10am and again around the time the fire started at 2.45pm, as hot winds blew at up to 120km/h.The SP AusNet workers are understood to have followed Mr Philpott on the day and spoken to him outside an electricity sub-station near the abandoned mill.But despite the evidence of electrical faults, within a week of the fire police claimed that arson was the cause. Politicians including then prime minister Kevin Rudd spoke of ''mass murder''.The criminal investigation into arson prevented the $90 million Bushfires Royal Commission from considering what might have ignited the blaze at the mill.Now, having cleared Mr Philpott - the closest resident to the Murrindindi Mill and the first to alert authorities to the fire - police will not discuss the investigation. They say it would be inappropriate to do so while the coroner is examining the blaze.However, The Sunday Age can reveal that police from the fire-specialist Phoenix taskforce are interviewing eyewitnesses, some for the first time, about details of electrical faults on the day.After pursuing Mr Philpott as an arsonist for 30 months, police last Monday interviewed him for a fourth time, this time seeking his help. They still have not officially informed him that he will not be charged.Mr Philpott declined to speak to The Sunday Age, but said through lawyers that he was ''pleased to see the focus of the investigation has shifted from him to the electricity companies''.Singapore government-owned SP AusNet declined to answer questions but said in a statement that it ''believes that its assets were not involved in the Murrindindi fire''.If the Murrindindi blaze is found to have been sparked by faulty power lines, it will be the sixth of the Black Saturday fires ignited that way, and the second most deadly after the Kinglake blaze, which claimed 119 lives.SP AusNet is being sued for negligently causing the Kinglake fire but is denying responsibility, despite the consensus of experts and the conclusions of the Bushfires Royal Commission.In Marysville, locals are furious about lack of communication from the police about the blaze that devastated their town.''I'd like to see the police be honest and give some consideration to what the community's been through, to have been led to believe that it was ? arson,'' local doctor Lachlan Fraser said.''You'd like to see them express some regret that they reached that conclusion, and some acknowledgement of the hurt that it's caused the community, as well as the one individual who was a person of interest, Ron Philpott.''The president of the Marysville and Triangle Development Group, Graeme Brown, said there had ''to be clarity''.''Given the devastation the community has been through ? it needs some reassurance that the system is working well.''The Sunday Age has spoken to a number of eyewitnesses to events that occurred near the mill, who suggest power lines might have started the fire.Farmer Don Lawson said he arrived at the burnt-out mill about 5pm on February 7, 2009, having driven over a fallen electricity wire that was draped across the road and a fence.''It appeared to have fallen down from the power pole in the paddock,'' Mr Lawson said.He said he had tried three times since then to tell police what he had seen, but they only interviewed him last month.Another witness, Ian Robinson, said he heard two loud bangs about the time the fire started, which could be attributed to high-voltage power lines clashing. He gave a statement to police soon afterwards, but heard nothing more until police approached him last month.Mr Philpott's closest neighbours, Len and Patricia Mitchell, told police they heard a loud ''clanging'' noise just before the fire was reported. They have not been interviewed since 2009.Freelance electricity expert Michael Gunter carried out his own investigation into the fire, and made five submissions to the Bushfires Royal Commission that included detailed technical reports that suggested the fires were most likely to have been caused by power lines that fell or clashed in the howling wind.Mr Gunter provided photographs to the royal commission of frayed power lines in the area, saying the damage could have been caused by clashes.Mr Gunter's theories were dismissed in a March 2010 email from Phoenix taskforce Detective Senior Sergeant Jeff Maher, who said damage ''referred to by Gunter was caused by a lightning strike''.''The information supplied by Gunter has no basis whatsoever,'' Senior Sergeant Maher wrote.However, last week Mr Gunter was invited to present his evidence again, this time to taskforce chief Detective Inspector Paul O'Halloran. Mr Gunter declined to discuss the meeting.The taskforce is also believed to have recently appointed independent engineering consultants to reconsider the original forensic evidence relating to the clashing power lines theory.The original investigation quickly focused on the arson theory. ''This was ? a deliberate attempt to create a bushfire on a massive scale,'' said Detective Superintendent Paul Hollowood on February 13, 2009.By April 2009, Assistant Commissioner for crime Dannye Moloney said police were closing in on their man.Mr Philpott, who served as a volunteer firefighter for almost 50 years, has no criminal record and Murrindindi residents have stood by him. ''There's no way this was arson. I know Ron very well. He's a very good man,'' said Tom Lawson.Detective Superintendent Brett Guerin did not answer questions from The Sunday Age, but in a statement insisted that police had conducted ''an exhaustive investigation''.''We agree entirely that the community has a right to know what happened ? we are absolutely committed to uncovering the truth,'' he said.''However, it will be the coroner's role to determine the cause of the fire.''