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Private power pole started Hills inferno
The failed power pole that caused the Hills fire. Picture: EnergySafety

UPDATE: A falling power pole on the property of an 82-year-old woman sparked the Perth Hills firestorm that destroyed 55 dwellings, but an energy regulator says she is unlikely to be penalised.

The failure of the private power pole has been confirmed as the cause of the devastating Hills fire that caused at least $13 million damage.

Hills Inferno - Full Coverage

EnergySafety director Ken Bowron said today that wiring insulation was damaged as the pole fell.

"The insulation on the consumer wiring leaving the main switchboard that was attached to the pole was damaged as the pole fell," he said.

"This caused a short circuit in the wiring and the resulting sparks and hot metal ignited the fire."

The pole was on the property of 82-year-old Noreen Campbell, who has lived in the hills for 40 years.

“Mum was pretty upset by the fire, and she evacuated, and then it kept getting worse and worse and worse,” Ms Campbell’s son Stewart told Fairfax radio.

While local authority advice says it is the homeowner’s responsibility to have private power lines inspected and maintained, Mr Bowron said it was unlikely Ms Campbell would face any penalty from them.

“We’ve got our investigations to continue so I don’t want to pre-empt where any of those might be going, but the requirement is that electrical infrastructure is tested and inspected when it’s first put in service and there is no ongoing requirement from that,” Mr Bowron said.

With no responsibility on electricity provider Western Power, the State Government said it would cost millions of dollars if the onus for inspection of private power poles fell on the Government. “The (Energy) Minister needs to look at what’s possible, look at how we can try and improve the safety so we don’t have events like this occur again,” Acting Premier Kim Hames said. Mr Bowron said it was not illegal to not maintain electrical infrastructure but Ms Campbell’s family said the elderly resident would probably still seek legal advice.EnergySafety has taken the switchboard, wiring and pole for examination.The power pole will be inspected by a timber expert tomorrow."These items will be examined in more detail this week and our investigations are continuing, including consideration of how the pole failed and the suitability of hard wood poles for consumers' private power lines," Mr Bowron said."It is clear at this stage that a failed privately owned power pole was involved, without knowing the cause of the failure."It is timely to remind everyone that it is the property owner's responsibility to maintain all electrical equipment they own which is beyond the network operator's point of supply. This includes power poles."The confirmation of the cause of the fire came after WA's fire chief yesterday signalled a shake-up of the management of privately owned power lines, suggesting it might be more appropriate for authorities to assume responsibility for them.Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Wayne Gregson called for a review of the way such infrastructure was overseen.Landholders are responsible for maintaining and inspecting privately owned power lines and poles that connect their property to Western Power or Horizon Power's network.

Western Power said EnergySafety advised homeowners to check their own power lines at least once a year and, where appropriate, "engage contractors".But the State-owned utility said the management of such assets was ultimately not its responsibility.Official guidelines for private power infrastructure "strongly recommend" property owners put their lines underground - an option sources suggest is becoming cheaper than replacing poles. One major hurdle is believed to be the difficulty many landholders have in identifying the integrity of poles below the ground, and the lack of contractors qualified to do the work.Speaking on ABC radio yesterday, Mr Gregson said the Parkerville fire had highlighted inadequacies in the system and he wanted it reviewed to see whether authorities would be better placed to manage it."Is it fair and reasonable to expect an owner to be responsible for that type of infrastructure," he said.Some residents affected by the blaze have complained they are ill-equipped to bear the responsibility given the potentially disastrous implications of infrastructure failure.They want authorities such as Western Power to be given responsibility for the task, likening it to other public safety issues requiring State oversight, such as backyard pool inspections."It's frustrating me because you'll inspect a pool gate that could save a child's life but you won't go to inspect a power pole that could save thousands of lives and thousands of homes," Stoneville resident Matthew Leverington said.