Western Victorian farmer Jill Porter cannot escape the trauma of the St Patrick’s Day bushfires that tore through her and her husband Brad’s dairy farm three and a half years ago.

Key points:

  • Dairy farmers Jill and Brad Porter lost half their herd during the St Patrick’s Day bushfires in 2018
  • Powercor pleaded guilty to one charge, but says other dropped charges prove its inspection regime was up to scratch
  • Ms Porter says the company has bullied its way out of accountability

From the kitchen window of their farmhouse in The Sisters, two-and-a-half hours’ west of Melbourne, Ms Porter can still see scarred earth and remnants of the bushfires that destroyed 18 homes and killed thousands of head of livestock on March 17, 2018. 

A protracted legal battle resulted in Energy Safe Victoria (ESV) eventually charging Powercor with six offences after its investigation found fires at nearby Garvoc and Terang were caused by faulty infrastructure. 

However, this week Powercor agreed to plead guilty to just one offence, with ESV withdrawing all charges relating to the Garvoc blaze that emanated from a rotten power pole near Ms Porter’s farm. 

The news brought back the emptiness Ms Porter felt when surveying the smouldering remains of the family farm after the bushfire killed about 300 of their dairy cows — half of their herd.  

“Basically, what ESV have done is they’ve ran with their tail between their legs and said, ‘If you’re OK to accept one charge, we’ll drop the other charges because they’re a bit difficult’.”

ESV said it was holding Powercor to account by having the company plead guilty to failing to minimise the risk of bushfire relating to the Terang blaze.

‘I’m terrified every time it’s hot’

Ms Porter and her husband Brad were on a long-overdue holiday in Tasmania when their farm was engulfed by flames. 

She wasn’t there to witness the heartbreak of the fire tearing through their property, but says the impact of the devastation is now part of her everyday life.

“We live it every day, it doesn’t go away,” she said. 

“And if it’s not to me, it’s to someone else. We just can’t allow it, it’s wrong”.

A middle-aged couple sit at their dining room table.

Garvoc farmers Jill and Brad Porter were badly affected by bushfires on March 17, 2018.(ABC News: Karen Percy)

Energy Safe Victoria issued a statement saying it was the duty of electricity companies to keep the community safe. 

“Energy Safe Victoria has held Powercor to account regarding the Terang fire and will not hesitate to hold other power companies to account for failing to manage and operate their electricity assets safely,” ESV chair Marnie Williams said. 

Powercor said it was satisfied with the legal outcome, which it believed vindicated the efficacy of its power pole inspection and maintenance program. 

However, Ms Porter — who became a community advocate in the wake of the tragedy — believes ESV has run from a fight, and that Powercor has shirked its responsibility. 

The remains of blackened trees on charred farmland.

Jill Porter says there were no trees left on her Garvoc property after the St Patrick’s Day bushfires.(ABC News: Karen Percy)

“We’re all human, mistakes happen. But I think what makes us decent humans and decent corporate companies is the way in which we manage our errors.

“I cannot allow another one of these fires to do to another family or a community. What has happened to my family and my community, it cannot be allowed.

‘It’s beyond wicked’: Farmer blasts energy authority, Powercor after St Patrick’s Day bushfire backdown
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