Sunday, February 26, 2012

Fire in the street - a call to action

A few weeks ago I missed one of my pilates classes for very good reasons.  It had been a day when the temperature here in Melbourne had risen to 35 degrees. Just before 6pm, upon walking out my front gate, I found the electric cable and light pole on the opposite side of the street blazing like one of the sparklers we  played with as children on bonfire nights.  It was a shock.  I immediately went back inside and dialled 000 - the first time I have had to do this.  Then I walked down and cautiously knocked on the front door of the house  under the pole.  Despite an open front door those inside knew nothing of the blaze - but could 'smell some burning'.  Shifting the car from below the pole, by now dripping molten pastic, was a good idea - and fortunately done early enough to prevent any damage.  The fire brigade arrived soon enough and before long had the blaze out.   We had a short power outage, but within several hours all seemed fine again.

Disturbing though this incident was in inner city Melbourne, it is the wider implications that ring bells of alarm. It was a very hot day - but by no means one of the hottest we have had nor will continue to have.  Yet here was a spontaineous ignition of the sort that triggered major bushfires in rural Victoria in February 2009 with significant loss of life.

The subsequent Royal Commission concluded that: ' Faulty power lines are believed to have caused five of the 11 major fires on Black Saturday and the commission said the solution was the replacement of single-wire earth return power lines with aerial bundled cable or underground cables.'   Depite these findings the state government has deferred implemetation of these recommendations on cost grounds.

A few weeks earlier, on an even hotter day when my family and I were returning from Adelaide, the implications of power line failure in contexts of weather extremes became even more apparent.  As explained in this opinion piece published in the Adelaide Advertiser, based on an article written by my daughter on that very trip, electricity authorities are being forced to close down whole grid systems in periods of extremes, particularly where bushfires might ensue.  The end result is a community potentially subjected to life threatening heat stress.  As pointed out there is a need for institutional and technological innovation to break out of this trap.  It need not be expensive, but it does involve challenging the thinking and corporate interests that dismiss arguements for investing in more locally resilient power/energy systems.

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