Victorian dairy farmer Jill Porter is taking things one day at a time, but anger, frustration and fear spill over, just like her grief.
“I hope that we survive, but we’ve suffered an enormous loss,” she said, through tears.
“I’ve lost half my herd, and the half that’s remaining is sick and burned and crook, and on a day like that they’ll produce 30–40 per cent [of their usual milk].
“It’s enormous, the loss.”
She and her husband Brad have been struggling to run their Garvoc dairy business ever since two devastating fires tore through the region on St Patrick’s Day.
“It took everything. It took my cows, it took every tree, it took every fence.
“The dairy stood because of the CFA [Country Fire Authority], all our local men came, and we’re just left with a mess to clean up.”
Locals believe the fire started when a power pole, at the Kenna family’s farm nearby, snapped in high winds and fell to the ground just before 9:00pm on March 17.
Betty Kenna saw the fire running along and said it was suddenly “hitting a tree, and it was just fireballs”.
Her voice trembles as she recalls that night and the “ferocious” wind.
Her husband, Jack Kenna, woke to get his children out and alert his neighbours.
“It’s been gut-wrenching. It’s been very hard mentally since the fires,” he said.
“We know that it’s not our fault, but it started here on our property and it’s wiped half the countryside out.”
The pole is owned by Powercor and had been reinforced some years before.
The Kennas had never been concerned about it “because you put your faith in whoever’s looking after those poles, or owns those poles”, Mrs Kenna said.
Investigators trace cause as class action looms
Frustration is growing across the region about the slow response of Powercor, a firm majority-owned by Hong Kong firm CK Holdings.
“We want to fully understand why these electricity assets were involved and we are cooperating with Energy Safe Victoria (ESV) as it investigates the Garvoc and Terang fires,” Powercor said in statement.
A preliminary report released this week by ESV, which focused on the fire at Terang, said it was caused by four short-circuits in as many minutes at the town’s substation, in winds of more than 100 kilometres an hour.
ESV found the most likely source of ignition was “molten conductor material falling from clashing and arcing conductors” during the high-wind event.
The investigation into the Garvoc fire continues.
The company has not admitted liability because of a class action suit being pursued by some affected farmers.
“Given the current legal proceedings, we are unable to make further comment,” it said in a statement.
Powercor said it was “currently reviewing the report” from ESV.
Farmers face exhaustion
Edward Conheady and his family run five dairies and a beef operation in the region. He recalls watching from afar as 2,000 tonnes of feed and 500 tonnes of hay on his property went up in flames.
“The glow in the dark, in the sky, I’ll never forget that … the whole sky was a red glow,” he said.
He’s had to destroy cows whose feet and teats were blistered, replace feed, re-sow 80 per cent of his paddocks and replace more than 30 kilometres of fencing.
The clean-up and rebuilding coincided with calving season, which has meant 200 new calves to deal with on a fraction of the land he’s used to.
“People are starting their season now physically exhausted and yet they’re faced with this mammoth workload,” he said.
“I think that in itself is one of the biggest costs — and also the mental pressure.”
He cannot begin to calculate what he’s lost, and the additional financial outlays. He will be covered in part by insurance.
“We’re still going to [have] a very significant shortfall. Now, if anyone is proven to be negligent or whatever, I only hope that is done in a fair way,” he said.
At the Kenna family property, Powercor replaced the pole right after the fire but the Kennas have heard little from the company since.
“If it’s found that there is a settlement, we can’t afford to wait for six or seven years. It’s got to be pretty much straight away,” Mr Kenna said.
“We should be compensated 100 per cent because that’s the way it should be if you’re going to be fair about it.”
He said some kind of third party watchdog was needed to oversee the process, otherwise money due to farmers would be lost in fees for lawyers and others.
“It has to happen because the system as it is now is broken, as far as compensation goes, and it needs to be fixed,” he said.
No compensating a ‘broken spirit’
Jill and Brad Porter want to see action too.
“All of those power assets were government-owned,” Mrs Porter said.
“They [the Government] should poke and prod them. They should advocate for us.”
Ms Porter said she didn’t have the energy or the time to deal with the paperwork to make a claim for government assistance or loans.
She said she wanted the people at Powercor to see for themselves what farming families were going through.
“Maybe they need to come out of Melbourne, and come down here and they actually need to see the hours you work, the time you put into your cattle, ” Mrs Porter said.
“Perhaps [they] need to speak to my husband … you can’t ever be compensated for a broken spirit.”
By: Karen Percy