Aberfeldy charge dropped

The most serious charge against the man accused of causing the Aberfeldy bushfire on 17 January was dropped on Thursday.

Grahame Ernest Code was accused of recklessly and without lawful excuse causing a bushfire, but the indictable charge was withdrawn on the fourth day of a committal hearing in the Latrobe Valley Magistrates’ Court.

Prosecutor Daryl Brown said there was “not a realistic prospect of proving recklessness”.

Code faced six lesser charges, which have now been reduced to two.

The court heard he intends to plead guilty to lighting a fire in the open area without written authority in a fire protected area during a prohibited period.

He will contest the charge of leaving a fire that was lit to his knowledge by his agent without previously taking all reasonable precaution to prevent spreading.

On Thursday the court heard from forensic officer Rachel Noble about her attendance at the Code property on 19 and 20 January and her aerial inspection nine days later.

Ms Noble had inspected the region where a burn-off had been conducted by the Codes the morning of the bushfire, the court heard.

During cross-examination, defence barrister John Desmond suggested Ms Noble went into the investigation with a “preconceived notion” about the origin of the fire as a result of her prior briefing by police and Department of Environment and Primary Industries officers.

“The information given isn’t to tell me what my conclusion should be, it’s giving me an area I have to examine,” Ms Noble responded.

“You take into account the information at the scene, but evidence collected is what formed my opinion,” she said earlier.

In her findings, Ms Noble said the spread of the Aberfeldy fire could have possibly been caused by a burning ember from the burn-off pit into bushland to the west.

She conceded under cross-examination this could only have occurred if the burn-off fire was still going.

However, later she said she was not qualified to give opinion on the spread of fire.

The court heard earlier in the week, Mr Desmond argue the burn-off had been doused out and there were potentially three separate fires on the day, possibly “the work of a serial arsonist”.

He said Mrs Code was alerted at 11.30am by her son after he “heard crackling and smoke” and she went outside to discover a fire on their property 20 metres south-west from the fire pit they had burnt off in and saw a “giant plume” of smoke on a spur 1000 metres away.

The hearing will continue on 17 and 18 December and the matter is expected to be finalised before the end of the year.

The Aberfeldy fire burned more than 85,000 hectares, spreading to Seaton and claiming a man’s life.