Electricity Industry and Bushfires 1969 to 1994

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History Informs Recent Events

Following the death of 173 people on Black Saturday, 7th February 2009, premier John Brumby set up the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission (VBRC). Counsel assisting VBRC located, researched and drew heavily on a number of historical government records, none moreso than the documentation of the 1977 Board of Inquiry into Bush and Grass Fires in Victoria, February 1977. Those fires on 12th February 1977 killed six Victorians, and just as on Black Saturday, many of them were ignited by sparks from live electric power lines.

The 1977 Inquiry was chaired by Sir Esler Barber. His full report is downloadable from the State Library of Victoria web site. In 2009 the transcript and exhibits from that inquiry were not yet publicly accessible, but were called back from accession storage at PROV by the Department of Justice, presumably to provide background information and historical context for VGSO and counsel acting for the Victorian government. After VBRC hearings were completed, the transcript and exhibits were returned to PROV, and soon thereafter became VPRS 13230, finally publicly accessible.

The Missing 1977 Exhibits Rediscovered

Two crucial Exhibit files relating to power line safety were not present when VPRS 13230 was made public, but had been replaced by shiny pale blue translucent plastic tabs, of a very modern material inconsistent with 1977-era stationery supplies. PROV staff, once alerted to the missing Exhibits, contacted the Department of Justice, and eventually digitized copies of both the missing files, Exhibit 279 and Exhibit 216‎ were found. However both original exhibits were still missing in November 2011. The digitized PDF facsimiles were later found to be genuine but 216 was incomplete. They show that the SEC knew in 1969 that clashing power lines could trigger firestorms and thus kill people. The 1977 tests (Exhibit 216) "backtracked" in terms of experimental design, because they did not acknowledge the 1969 tests (Exhibit 279), and used a questionable experimental method which studiously avoided dropping burning aluminium particles anywhere near flammable dry grass or paper. This will be clear upon careful study of Exhibit 216.

UPDATE 19 January 2012: The original exhibits 216 and 279 have been located (off-site from PROV North Melbourne) and returned to VPRS 13230/P1/7 and VPRS 13230/P1/10 Exhibits folders. Inspection and photography next week will almost certainly confirm that the PDFs available here (links, above) are true copies, albeit of rather low resolution.

UPDATE 4 February 2012: High quality PDFs have now been made from digital images of the original two exhibits. Because of their size, they are hosted externally: Exhibit 279 (the 1969 tests) and Exhibit 216 (the 1977 tests), including three new graphs. Importantly, the new and revealing graph in three parts, previously unavailable in any of the earlier digitized versions of Exhibit 216 has been confirmed as genuine, and added to the last three pages of the new PDF of that exhibit. It is referred to in the Inquiry's transcript, page 1710 as "graphs", during which session there was a testy and hard-fought examination of the expert witness "H" about what he could and could not say based on his expert knowledge: see pages 1706-1734 here. Witness "H" was also quizzed about his knowledge (or lack of) in relation to the 1969 ignition tests.

Detailed interpretation of the 1977 graphs will follow, but initial impressions are that they are deeply flawed, and if knowingly submitted as flawed, raise legitimate questions about whether engineering experts were deliberately trying to confuse lawyers and bureaucrats, or just indifferent to the prospect of badly presented technical data being useless to the Board of Inquiry.

SEC's Culture of Denial Roundly Criticized

Another typed copy of the transcript of the 1977 inquiry (but without any exhibits) was located in files of the legal department of the former State Electricity Commission of Victoria (SEC). These had been publicly accessible even prior to Black Saturday as VPRS 9823. What is revealed there is the SEC being castigated by Sir Esler Barber for having a culture of denial, a willful ignorance of the evidence of many rural residents and farmers, that SEC power lines had been causing dangerous bush fires for many years prior to 1977, most notably a spate of fires involving some fatalities on 8th January 1969. That day was yet another day of very strong hot dry winds across Victoria.

Selected excerpts of VPRS 9823 and VPRS 13230 have been photographed and converted into "image-only" PDF documents. Please note that unfortunately "image-only" PDFs are rather large files and the text within them is not searchable, neither can it be copied and pasted as plain text.

Valuable Findings Unearthed in SEC's Video Vault

In the latter half of 2011, Mgunt2 researched another SEC archive at PROV, namely the SEC's film and video collection, VPRS 5061, consisting of over 1,800 cine films and video tapes. It was soon apparent that VPRS 5061/P0 and VPRS 5061/P1 consisted exclusively of cine films, and VPRS 5061/P2 consisted almost exclusively of video tapes. Unfortunately PROV has no viewing facilities, so researchers must arrange for a viewing session at ACMI, or for the multimedia item to be copied ("dubbed") to a modern convenient format such as DVD. Old video formats in VPRS 5061/P2 include 1" Tapes, U-matic video cassettes, VHS video cassettes, three separate formats of Betacam cassette (standard SP, SP-90, Digital Betacam), and mini-DV cassettes. In PROV's online catalogue for VPRS 5061/P2 only a handful of over 1,000 video tapes had any indication of the media type, so researcher Mgunt2 accessed all its units and items, in order to create this spreadsheet which clearly specifies the media type of each and every "item" (some of which are classified as "Units" in the PROV catalogue). The Office of the Administrator barcode identifier, in the format "SECH0nnnn" has been added to a separate column in the spreadsheet. This "SECH0nnnn" ID is used by PROV in VPRS 5061/P1, and appears preferable to the older SEC ID of the format "Document No. 00nnnn".

Under Active Construction

To do (Mgunt2): (i) upload PDF versions of all the material I have photographed from VPRS 9823, and 13230; (ii) some from VPRS 9823 are already available to view or download from www.voltscommissar.net/research_purposes_only; (iii) Supply to PROV my forensic reconstruction of a damaged, unplayable U-matic video tape VPRS 5061/P2/39 "Document No. 002243 Bushfire Inquiry 1977. Master" (click for image of U-matic cassette). With the help of a skilled professional video technician, the audio was recovered from this unplayable tape and combined with the original vision from the silent 16mm cine version VPRS 5061/P1/521 "SECH00619 Extracts From Tests - Bushfire Inquiry - 1977 (Copy B)" (click for image of 16mm can and 16mm can in detail) to re-create an authentic reconstruction of what the U-matic video tape originally showed and stated. This provides some important insights into the SEC's knowledge of bushfire causation. It is unclear how this high quality Sony brand U-matic cassette became unplayable. Perhaps it was played so much that the magnetic material wore out, or perhaps it was subjected to a strong external magnetic field. It is understood that the SEC did possess a bulk eraser machine for demagnetizing magnetic tapes, but they also had assess to a huge range of transformers and other inductive electric devices.

List of films and videos digitized from VPRS 5061 "The SEC's Video Vault"


More YouTube links will be activated in Jan-Feb 2012
VPRS identifier/citation
Description
YouTube Link
Notes
VPRS 5061/P1/521
from SECH00619 Extracts From Tests - Bushfire Inquiry - 1977 (Copy B)
Title: Zap! Bam! Kapow!
conductor clashing (silent colour film). high contrast final scene shows violent magnetic force: mutual repulsion of parallel wires.
VPRS 5061/P1/521
from SECH00619 Extracts From Tests - Bushfire Inquiry - 1977 (Copy B)
Title: Zap! Bam! Kapow!
same test, better colour, sharper (except for final B&W scene)
VPRS 5061/P1/521
from SECH00619 Extracts From Tests - Bushfire Inquiry - 1977 (Copy B)
Powerline ignites tree branch
13,000 volts attacking wet wood
VPRS/5061/P1/620
SECH0718 Fuse and SWER Tests 1967 - 1971
EDO and clamp-on fuses operating
Expulsion Drop-Out and SWER clamp-on fuses: see incandescent particles reach the ground
VPRS 5061/P2/19
SECH02100 (Document No. 002385)
Bushfire Insurance 1986(A)
Macedon: Rebuilding, destroyed mansion, street scenes
VPRS 5061/P2/19
SECH02101 (Document No. 002386)
Bushfire Insurance 1986(B)
Macedon Main Street, horse riders, burnt town edge
VPRS 5061/P2/19
SECH02102 (Document No. 002390)
Bushfire Insurance 1986(C)
Maryborough: Street scenes, SEC line inspection system
VPRS 5061/P2/19
SECH02103 (Document No. 002405)
Bushfire Insurance 1986(D)
Line Inspection by fixed-wing aircraft
VPRS 5061/P2/22
SECH02123 (Document No. 002383)
Bushfire Insurance 1986(E)
Narrator inside Deeriweit ruins, Macedon (faulty video)
VPRS 5061/P2/22
SECH02124 (Document No. 002384)
Bushfire Insurance 1986(F)
Rebuilt school, house reconstruction, burning tree stumps
VPRS 5061/P2/34
SECH02230 (Document No. 002408)
Bushfire Insurance 1986(G)
Berwick Pole Replacement, staged office scenes.
VPRS 5061/P2/35
SECH02221 (Document No. 002411)
Bushfire Insurance 1986(H)
Mount Macedon Interview: "Well do you know what causes fires?" "Wrong question."
VPRS 5061/P2/35
SECH02239 (Document No. 002412)
Bushfire Insurance 1986(I)
Distribution Engineer Interviewed on Bushfire Mitigation
VPRS 5061/P2/36
SECH02240 (Document No. 002413)
Bushfire Insurance 1986(J)
Engineer's Interview continue...
VPRS 5061/P2/36
SECH02241 (Document No. 002414)
Bushfire Insurance 1986(K)
Engineer's Interview continue further...
VPRS 5061/P2/36
SECH02242 (Document No. 002415)
Ash Wednesday
Fire footage, dramatic music, rapid scene changes 5'16"
VPRS 5061/P2/39
SECH02259 (Document No. 002319)
Commercials+Cutting the Fire Risk
telecine transfer of 1980 16mm colour films
VPRS 5061/P2/39
SECH02260 (Document No. 002320)
Towards a Safer Region
Worker safety, 1986. (log drop @10'55")
VPRS 5061/P2/41
SECH02273 (Document No. 002697)
'89 bushfire mitigation manual drama(A)
RTFM!!!!!
VPRS 5061/P2/41
SECH02274 (Document No. 002698)
'89 bushfire mitigation manual drama(B)
RTFM to save lives
VPRS 5061/P2/42
SECH02282 (Document No. 002706)
Bushfire Mitigation (tape 5)
actor fills out line inspection report (rushes)
VPRS 5061/P2/69
SECH02495 (Document No. 002267)
Graham Kennedy, Barry Humphries, a "fair lady" (brunette!) and a briquette dealer
1960s in-house promos, and "making of" a TVC.
VPRS 5061/P2/77
SECH02531 (Document No. 002318)
System Voltage Control. Master
55-minute lecture by senior system engineer H.B. Wong June 1985
VPRS 5061/P2/90
SECH02630 (Document No. 001132)
So Much To Lose
Tree lopping mitigates fire risk, does not eliminate fire risk of power lines.
VPRS 5061/P1/521
complete SECH00619 Extracts From Tests - Bushfire Inquiry - 1977 (Copy B)
16mm silent colour film
Telecine transfer->DVD->transcoded for Youtube. Shows how power lines ignite fires.
VPRS 5061/P2/39
SECH02257 (Document No. 002243) Bushfire Inquiry 1977. Master
Severely damaged U-matic tape
Only audio could be salvaged. Obvious correlation with most scenes from P1/521
VPRS 5061/P1/521 + /P2/39
Vision from P1/521, sound from P2/Doc.No. 002243
SEC's internal video now restored and publicly available
The soundtrack/narration was NOT AVAILABLE to the 2009 Bushfires Royal Commission

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