Black Saturday bushfire case opens in Australia

A fire engine moves away from a bushfire in the Bunyip State Forest near the township of Tonimbuk (7 February 2009)
Image caption Fires on Black Saturday left a total of 173 people dead in Victoria

Survivors of one of the biggest bushfires in Australian history are suing a power company for negligence.

The case centres on the most deadly blaze on Black Saturday, on 7 February 2009, when wildfires swept across several areas in the state of Victoria.

This fire, in the Kilmore East area north of Melbourne, killed 119 people and destroyed more than 1,000 homes.

The plaintiffs say SPI Electricity failed to adequately maintain its power lines - claims the company denies.

The case is expected to last at least nine months. There are about 10,000 plaintiffs, led by Carol Matthews, who lost her 22-year-old son in the fire.

A 2009 Royal Commission found that the fire began when an electricity line failed between two poles. Contact between the live conductor and a cable stay supporting the pole caused arcing that ignited vegetation, the report said.

The plaintiffs accuse SPI of failing to maintain its equipment adequately.

"This fire was entirely preventable," their lawyer, Robert Richter, told the court. "With known and reasonable steps taken in time, SPI could and should have prevented it."

He rejected SPI's stance that a lightning strike damaged the power line's infrastructure.

The group are also suing maintenance firm Utility Services Corporation Limited over its inspections of the power line.

A total of 173 people died in the Black Saturday fires.

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