Monday, 9 February 2009
Victorian Bushfire Victims
That the House:
- extends its deepest sympathies to families and loved ones of those Australians killed in the weekend’s tragic bushfires in Victoria;
- records its deep regret at the human injury, the loss of property and the destruction of communities caused by the weekend’s fires;
- praises the work of emergency services, volunteers and community members in assisting friends and neighbours in this time of need; and
- acknowledges the profound impact on those communities affected and the role of governments and the Australian community in assisting their recovery and rebuilding.
I offer the deepest and most sincere condolences of this House and our nation’s parliament to those families suffering most, to the communities lost and to a state that will never be the same. It is a tragedy beyond belief, beyond precedent and, really, beyond words. 7 February 2009 will now be remembered as one of the darkest days in Australia’s peacetime history. The beautiful towns and hamlets of Kinglake, Marysville and Narbethong are no more. At least 640 homes and their irreplaceable contents, like the photographs of children and the memories of family life, have been destroyed. The weekend’s fires and particularly 7 February 2009 are surely Victoria’s blackest time.
Whilst as yet it does not have a tragic name, it is blacker than the human tragedies of Black Friday of 1939 and Ash Wednesday of 1983, and in this dark time there has been a human cost without comparison. 7 February 2009 will be remembered as the day when more than 400 fires burned across the state during the most severe weather conditions ever recorded. It will be a day remembered for the lives lost—107 at last count—and families and communities were changed forever. It will be remembered as the day when the fires raged across the state from Horsham in the west, Bendigo and Beechworth in the north and, in an arc of destruction, from West Gippsland to Kinglake and Kilmore. It will be remembered as a day of tragedy, courage and sheer luck.
Let me share some of the media reports with the House: the tragedy of Rebecca Buchanan, who lost her 15-year-old son, ‘Macca’ Mackenzie; nine-year-old daughter, Neeve; and her brother Danny Clark, who was 37 years old. Two young girls from down the street also perished inside the house of Rebecca’s mother, Jenny Clark. Jenny is seriously injured with burns to 30 per cent of her body after she desperately tried to save her grandchildren. That is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all—that children were involved.
There is the tragedy of Strathewen resident Mary Avola, 67, who told how she lost her husband of four decades, Peter, after the couple fled their home. She said:
We were trying to save our house. We had our cars lined up out the front and he told me to go. He was behind me in another car. He was behind me for a while and we tried to reach the oval but the gates were locked. He just told me to go and that’s the last time I saw him. It was just like World War Three. I’ve never seen anything like it.
There is the courage of Kinglake resident Karen Drenan and her son Jakob. Karen was lying in the bath with her son, neighbour and a dog when she realised the front door was on fire. She then put wet blankets over her 10-year-old son Jakob and told him to run to the other side of the road. His shoes had melted, so he grabbed a pair of high-heeled boots. She said of her son:
He was so brave, he did everything that was screamed at him to do. We called him the high-heel hero.
There is the courage of the stranger who saved Traralgon South resident Eileen Scott and her baby daughter, Lily. Eileen had drawn all the blinds on her home to try and protect herself and her daughter Lily from the searing heat when she heard banging on the door and someone screaming at her to get out. The stranger was Melissa Falzon, who got Ms Scott out of the house and picked up little Lily before the house erupted in flames. Ms Scott yesterday called Ms Falzon her angel.
And there is the story of seven months pregnant Nicole Berry, who nagged her husband Andrew to build a fire bunker behind the water tank because she was worried that sprinklers would not do enough to protect their timber home. Andrew recalled saying to her: ‘Stop nagging. I’ll build the bloody thing.’ It saved their lives and that of their 14-month-old son.
But, while we rejoice in the tales of courage and lives saved, unfortunately it is the tragedy that will collectively remain with us today and tomorrow and beyond. As a Melburnian and a Victorian, the reality of the loss took on a familiar face with the death of Brian Naylor and his wife, Moiree, at their Kinglake West home. I am one of the millions of Victorians who for years only got the news because ‘Brian told us’. He was loved and trusted like a reliable uncle. But Brian and Moiree Naylor are just one set of parents, friends and neighbours lost in these tragic events.
Victorian authorities inform us that 107 people are confirmed as deceased. This total has already outstripped those of Ash Wednesday of 1983 and Black Friday of 1939, and the grisly reality is that the record number of lives lost will continue to rise. More bodies will be found and identified by our emergency services. Burns victims will sadly succumb to their severe injuries despite the intensive efforts of our health professionals. We need to brace ourselves for the increase in fatalities and be mindful of the grief and circumstances of those families and communities. To be clear and frank, it will get worse and Australians need to prepare themselves for more bad news.
In this time of mounting tragedy we need to extend our support to those fighting the remaining fires, particularly in the Beechworth and Yackandandah regions in Victoria’s north-east. The stories of commitment by volunteers in these fires have been extraordinary. Jason Webb from Kinglake knows firsthand what a remarkable and heroic job the CFA do. After making sure his wife and children were safe, he spent four hours trying to save his house. One media report stated that, as he hid behind his hot water system pointing a hose towards his neighbour’s roof with a wet blanket over his head, Mr Webb thought his home was gone. Then someone ran around the corner and said the CFA were there. This is just one story of many and one volunteer of thousands.
All Australians, whether they are in Victoria or the capital cities and regional and rural communities around our nation, have been hit hard by these events and are at one in supporting our emergency services. To each person who fought these fires we say thank you. Most importantly, as a nation and as a community we need to extend a helping hand to rebuilding these towns and lives in the weeks and years ahead. The Australian government stands shoulder to shoulder with the Victorian government in this emergency response and rebuilding effort. To the Premier of Victoria and the people of Victoria: we stand with you.
Under the Commonwealth disaster plan, the Australian government has responded to three requests for assistance: the provision of beds for relief centres, heavy equipment for control lines and tents and bedding for accommodation. Emergency payments are being made to help families who have lost their homes get a roof over their heads. Assistance with funeral and medical costs is being provided to families who have lost loved ones or have family members who are seriously injured. These payments are being made through Centrelink and are available from today. The Australian government Victorian fires hotline, 180 2211, has been established to take claims and inquiries. I ask other community members with non-urgent Centrelink business to do us a favour and postpone their calls for a couple of days so we can keep the lines and Centrelink offices free for those who need them in this time of emergency.
The Australian and Victorian governments have established a $10 million community recovery fund to assist the recovery effort. The fund will cover the immediate costs of clean-up and restoration of community infrastructure. The Victorian bushfire relief fund has also been established and the Australian and Victorian governments have each donated an additional $2 million. As this emergency unfolds, communities are being identified for assistance under the government’s natural disaster relief and recovery arrangements. Through natural disaster relief assistance, the government can help with rebuilding essential infrastructure and providing assistance to local businesses to help them get back on their feet.
The Australian defence forces are ready to further assist the Victorian authorities with the recovery operations. Emergency bedding for firefighters has been arranged so that they can get some well-earned rest, as have bulldozers to help deal with the destruction. The armed forces are also on standby to help, with aerial imagery of fire ravaged areas, chainsaw teams to help clear roads, assistance with search operations and transport and temporary site office buildings to house the recovery effort.
This is only the start of our efforts. The Prime Minister, the cabinet and the government as a whole will do what is required to assist the individuals, families, local organisations, businesses and communities affected by these tragic events. The Prime Minister joined the Victorian Premier yesterday to be briefed on the fires and visited Kangaroo Ground and Whittlesea to talk with displaced residents and emergency service personnel. He visited Alexandra earlier today and remains in Victoria now. The Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs will remain in Melbourne this week to work directly with authorities, our Victorian colleagues and members such as the member for Bendigo. I acknowledge the support of the Leader of the Opposition and members opposite in these efforts, and I know that he and the member for McEwen were in Whittlesea today hearing about the impact of these events firsthand.
The support of employers is also needed to ensure the release of volunteer firefighters and other emergency personnel to attend these efforts. Their continued support is crucial to allow these volunteers to continue their emergency services work. More generally, the community response in the regions that have felt the full force of these fires has been extraordinary but it is also consistent with our national character. This commitment to helping our neighbours and fellow citizens needs to be a national and ongoing one. I encourage all Australians to make a contribution to the appeals that are underway. The rebuilding of these lives and communities will take months and years rather than days and weeks. Just as the strength of our communities ensured many survived these very devastating events, it will be that strength and resilience of the Australian community that will help our fellow citizens rebuild.
Every one of us here today will do everything that we possibly can to respond, to rebuild and to make certain that, to the extent that we can ever combat nature’s might, such tragedies cannot happen again. That will not be easy. There will be a time for analysis when we seek to understand what happened, how it happened and why it happened, but our immediate task is to pull together as a family, to provide comfort and to heal.
Today, on behalf of the Prime Minister, the members of this parliament and the nation, I want to grieve for those we have lost, pay tribute to the victims and praise the courage of those without whose help the death toll and the physical destruction would have been much, much worse. I commend the motion to the House.
It is with a very heavy heart that I rise to support the motion so eloquently moved by the Deputy Prime Minister. We live in a very beautiful country, but surely it has a terrible beauty and we have seen the full terror of that beauty in the last few days. To see it in such a beautiful part of Australia is so awesome. The towns of the Yarra Valley were carved out of the mountains to service the rush to the goldfields in the middle of the 19th century. These are beautiful towns that have become so loved by generations since because of their beauty and because of the friendliness and hospitality of their people. It is a rite of passage for Melburnians to drive from the suburbs of their great city into the Yarra Valley, to drive through those mighty forests of towering mountain ash, giant tree ferns and manna gums and on to the alpine regions. Marysville, Kinglake and Narbethong have served as the base for the Lake Mountain ski resort, where many Victorian children get their first taste of the snowfields, build their first snowman and throw their first carefree snowball. In autumn and spring they have offered the beauty of the Mystic Mountains and the glorious Cathedral Range, walks through quiet forest glades, the beauty of spectacular waterfalls and even occasionally the sight of a lyrebird. From the 1920s these towns have become popular tourist resort destinations and loved by people from all over Australia and all over the world.
But at the height of the Australian summer, amidst all of this natural beauty, this serenity, there is a looming menace, because on those hot February days, especially when the northerlies come down like a blast from a foundry and the forests begin to wilt, there is a real menace: truly nature at its most menacing, nature at its most terrible. Last Saturday was such a day. There were freakishly high temperatures and ferocious winds. It was a savage brute of a day, the like of which Victorians have never seen and would hope never to see again. That is the cruel paradox of the land in which we live. Never before have we witnessed fury such as this, havoc and devastation such as this, inflicted on any of our communities. Never before has there been a tragedy on a scale as great as this. This is the terrible side of the beauty of Australia.
Down in Whittlesea today Phil Edmunds and his wife were relieved that they had escaped with their lives. They lived at Kinglake. They had seen the fire 10 kilometres away. Five minutes later it was upon them. It was travelling at 120 kilometres an hour. When we were at Whittlesea today, survivor after survivor told Fran Bailey and me that the fires have been moving at 120 kilometres an hour. Who can outrun—how can you outrun—a menace like that? Phil—or ‘Smiley’, as he is known—escaped. His neighbours were one minute behind him. Later he saw their burnt out car. He does not know for sure whether or not they escaped alive. One minute—was that the difference between life and death, between life and a holocaust of fire and wind of 120 kilometres an hour? Smiley has lost all his possessions but I could see in his eyes, as in those of so many others today, a sense of amazement and wonder: ‘How did I make it and why did I make it when so many of my friends did not?’
We sat last night with Peter McWilliam, who is the president of Fran’s FEC. As are all FEC presidents, all branch presidents and all political parties, he is used to ringing up branch members. Last night he was calling to see who had lived and who had died. What a tally, what a job, what a terrible few days; the capricious brutality of this fire has swept everything before it.
There was another man there, too—a survivor. He and his family were immigrants to this country. They were there, too, reflecting on their survival. The husband said to me, ‘We think we are so smart, with all our science and our plans, and then Mother Nature comes along and stamps upon us.’ There too, sitting quietly against the wall, were two grandparents, their faces racked with a quiet anguish. Their youngest child, their son, lives in Kinglake with his own family. They have not been able to find him. The grandmother was sitting there, her hands in her lap, quietly knitting and unknitting her fingers, with an anxiety that spoke more powerfully of her terror than tears or words could ever do.
It is impossible to speak too highly of the courage and commitment of the firefighters, the police and the other emergency workers battling this terror. There are no words that are adequate to convey the praise, the admiration and the support that we owe these men and women. The Country Fire Authority’s volunteers have stood up in the face of the fiercest fires any of them have ever seen. One veteran of 45 years service as a volunteer fireman—he has seen them all—told us late last night that the intensity, the heat and, above all, the speed of the fires was without any precedent. But they were in good heart. Whether they were the men and women at Diamond Creek CFA brigade last night or at Whittlesea today, they were in good spirits. They were tired—they were exhausted. But they knew they had fought a good fight. They knew that there were hundreds of lives and properties that had survived this terrible fire because of their efforts. Some of the volunteers we met had lost their own homes. They had lost their own homes while they were defending the lives and the homes of other Australians. Truly, these men and women embody the very best of the Australian spirit of self-sacrifice in the service of others.
Being country people, many of the survivors are very keen, very acute observers of nature. One man from Humevale noted, and explained at great length, the different speed at which the fire had travelled when it went through ungrazed land at 120 kilometres an hour, like a speeding car, from when it struck land that had been grazed and moved, he said, at only a walking pace. We are only beginning to understand the nature of this horror. There was a quiet young officer from police forensics there today. He was talking of how people had died when the fireball had sucked all the oxygen out of the air and left them with nothing to breathe but fire itself.
This truly has been a tragedy that has brought out the most terrifying side of nature—the most terrible side of nature—but it has brought out the best in Australians, because confronting the adversity of nature at its fiercest has been part of our national story: Cyclone Tracy, Black Friday, the Maitland floods, Ash Wednesday. And, of course, today, as Victorians grapple with this firestorm, their fellow Australians in North Queensland face a flood. These are the extremes we face. We are the land, indeed, of ‘drought and flooding rains’ and the land that we love so much; in the words of Dorothea Mackellar, we love ‘her beauty and her terror’. We have always known it and we have always feared it and respected it, but we have always fought back.
Today we extend our heartfelt prayers to the families who have lost their loved ones, and our unstinting admiration to the men and women who have defended the lives of so many Australians in this terrible tragedy. And we cannot hold back anything that is required. The three words that should define our national response to this tragedy must be ‘Whatever it takes’: whatever it takes to put these people back on their feet, to enable them to rebuild their homes, to restock their farms, to recover their lives and to grow again, because they did not deserve this. Nobody deserves a tragedy like this. But they deserve our loyalty and support and they will get it. Soon enough, we will begin the task of recovery and rebuilding. That will demand resilience and resourcefulness. It will demand courage and tenacity and determination. And the communities in Victoria—all of them, right across the state—will require the solidarity and support of their fellow Australians, and they will get it.
But let there be no doubt about the people we have spoken of today, and the people we have visited today—the people of the Yarra Ranges. They are a very hardy lot. I cannot count the number of times I was told by people who had lost everything they owned that they would pick themselves up and start again. We already know of their will to fight, because we have seen it before. Think of this: you only need to make the trip back down through the Black Spur and across the Dandenong Ranges to the town of Cockatoo. Think of the town of Cockatoo. The people of Kinglake know that trip. When the Lakers play the Brookers as part of the annual fixture on the Yarra Valley Mountain District Football League, they make that trip, so they know that town well. On Ash Wednesday, 16 February 1983, Cockatoo was wiped out by fire: 300 homes destroyed, seven lives lost, in a small hillside town. But the people of Cockatoo were not beaten. Passionately, they rebuilt their houses. Out of the ashes, Cockatoo came back. By 1986, the population was over 2,000. By 1991, it was nearly 3,000. And today, more than a quarter of a century after the devastation, Cockatoo has more than doubled in size. With grit and fighting spirit, Cockatoo came back, bigger than ever. So, too, will Marysville, Kinglake and Narbethong, because nothing can wipe these places off the map. They live in the hearts of the brave people we met today, and so many others, and they must live and be rebuilt in our hearts too.
The opposition will give the government all the support that we can. We must do everything we can together, as a parliament and as a nation, to give these people whatever it takes to restore their communities and to build them stronger and safer in the years ahead. This is a terrible country in its terror and its fire. It is a beautiful country in its wonderful nature and gifts. As we deal with that terror, as we respond to the terror of Australia, so we forge the strength, the resilience, the courage and the determination that is Australian.
I rise to support this motion. It is one of the saddest motions this House has ever had to debate. It recalls equally sad events, such as the Bali bombing. It is not an easy time for the Australian people.
I also seek to make some remarks on behalf of the member for Jagajaga, the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, about support services that are available to all of those who are affected by this tragedy. We are enduring extremes. At one end of the continent we are facing flood. Yesterday I was in North Queensland, in Ingham, where there has been a metre of rain in only seven days and there is the prospect of more to come. At the other end of the country we have savage fires. It is a stark demonstration of the power of Mother Nature and how harsh and unforgiving our environment can be. The extent of the tragedies is almost too horrible to contemplate. As the Deputy Prime Minister has reported, sadly the death toll in Victoria has risen to 107. Our countryside has been torched. Pretty towns and hamlets which have endured for most of our nation’s European history are gone, flattened to embers—their people evacuated, surviving in isolated shelters or even worse.
Country people are pretty much used to such dangers, but this time the fires have threatened and continue to threaten even the boundaries of our large cities, like Melbourne and Bendigo. The consequences of our changing climate are becoming more severe. Bushfires are no longer, if they ever were, a trial for regional Australia. They are a trial for the whole of the country. And the whole of the country is responding with donations, with medical care and, of course, with courage. That courage is being shown as the fires rage and the floods rise, because the dangers are not over yet. Without that courage, how many more lives would have been lost? What greater measure of courage could there be than the fact that so many were prepared to risk their lives to save the lives of others? This is something that you see as you move around and talk to the volunteers who have put their lives on the line to save the lives of others. We know that many people were fighting the fires knowing that all was lost for some of them—but they went back out to help their friends, to help their neighbours or to help people they did not even know, because they have such a commitment to their community. Many of them may well have returned home to nothing. That is the spirit of Australia.
We owe these people—those who have lost their homes, those who have lost loved ones, especially children—every ounce of energy and help the Commonwealth government is capable of giving them. We in this place frequently disagree about many things. We may disagree about financial crises, and that is proper, but today we all come together to help fight the joint crises of fire and flood that affect the people of Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. The Australian government will be providing comprehensive support to those affected by the fires in Victoria. There will be counselling. Centrelink family liaison officers will be made available in relief centres in Victoria to provide counselling. Social workers will be deployed in consultation with the Victorian Department of Human Services. There will be disaster recovery assistance. The Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment will be made available to those people adversely affected by fires. One thousand dollars will be available for eligible adults, with an extra $400 per child. This payment will be made to those who have been seriously injured and hospitalised as well as to those who have lost their homes or those whose principal place of residence has been destroyed or seriously damaged as a direct result of the bushfires. The payment will also be made available to an immediate family member of those who lost their lives in the fire. It will be paid through Centrelink and will be available from Monday. Centrelink staff will also be in relief centres today to take claims for the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment.
The Victorian government is also providing some immediate cash assistance through the emergency recovery centres. This will help tide people over until the Centrelink payments are processed tomorrow. The Commonwealth government will be there with information and advice. The Australian Government Victorian Fires Hotline, 180 2211, has been established to take claims and inquiries about the Centrelink services and payments. We do ask members of the public who may be calling Centrelink about matters such as the government’s Nation Building and Jobs Plan to hold off, to leave a bit of space and give the Centrelink staff more time to deal with people from Victoria and also people from Queensland who may be seeking to access assistance right now. It is important that the hardworking staff of Centrelink can dedicate as much of their efforts as possible towards helping communities to deal with the unfolding tragedy. At a time like this, Australians pull together, and I am sure this request will be responded to in a very positive way by the public.
Sadly, there will also be funeral assistance. The Australian government will provide funeral assistance for the immediate family of a person who lost their life as a direct result of the fires. This assistance will be up to $5,000. The armed forces will also play their role in response. The Commonwealth disaster plan has been activated. Under this plan, authorisation has been provided to deploy 12 Army bulldozers and support crews to help fire protection efforts near Yea in north-east Victoria. Defence Force personnel will help build containment lines surrounding the town, which is still seriously threatened with fire. Under the Commonwealth disaster plan, the Australian government is providing 150 portable beds or mattresses to relief centres in West Gippsland. This is to provide emergency workers with facilities to get sufficient rest to continue their tireless work.
The federal government and the state governments are working closely together to ensure that the people and emergency workers in Victoria have all the support they require during this difficult time. We are helping begin rebuilding through the Commonwealth Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements. This includes a range of assistance measures, such as partial reimbursement to the Victorian government to provide assistance such as grants for food, clothing, accommodation and emergency housing repairs and expenditure on public infrastructure and restoration. We are joining with the Victorian government to channel community support to where it can make the most positive impact. The Australian government has agreed with the Victorian government to establish a $10-million Community Recovery Fund to assist the recovery effort in affected communities. The Community Recovery Fund will cover immediate costs of clean-up and removal of debris. It will also cover the restoration of community infrastructure damaged or destroyed in the fires above and beyond the replacement of essential public assets.
The public can make tax-deductible donations to the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund. The Australian and Victorian governments have also donated an additional $2 million each to this fund. The NAB, ANZ Bank, Commonwealth Bank and Bunnings have made their respective branches and stores donation points for Australians who wish to make a contribution to the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund. Today, a number of large corporates have also made very sizeable donations to that fund, and that is a tremendous indication of support from those organisations. Individuals and organisations wishing to make a donation to the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund can go to www.redcross.org.au or call the toll-free number: 1800811700. It is very important that we get the maximum community support behind that appeal. The Australian Red Cross is accepting blood donations especially to help with burns victims. I urge Australians to donate if they possibly can. People who need additional information and Commonwealth help can get it by phoning the Victorian bushfire hotline: 1800240667. The Centrelink assistance information line is 1802211. The Australian government website relating to the bushfires is www.disasterassist.gov.au.
It is fair to say that people all over Australia are shaking their heads in disbelief and asking: ‘What can I do? How can I help?’ There is so much that everyone can do to help—whether it is donations or joining the voluntary effort. I am sure all Australians will give generously to these appeals and those who are in a position to help on the ground will do so. I am certain all Australians will open their hearts. In times like this, we pull together to make us a stronger community. An event like this does not have a great deal of precedent in our history, but we know that at times like these Australians are at their finest. It is times like these when the Australian spirit and the Australian character really come through. Amid the charred landscapes and rubble, lie a lifetime of memories—memories of past lives taken by the full force of this inferno. We are all changed by that but, in the ruins of hundreds of homes and in the deaths of dozens and dozens of our people, we summon the strength to rebuild, to renew and to emerge from this tragedy. It is hard to imagine that day now, but rest assured that day will come.
Each and every summer, Australians brace themselves for the extreme weather conditions that occur across this vast continent—dramatic storms and floods, drought, bushfires, scorching heat, ferocious winds, followed by gentle rain and calm. The contrast is profound. For people in the Northern Hemisphere, more particularly in smaller countries with temperate climates, it is difficult to fathom the colossal scale of the disasters that can occur in an Australian summer—the loss of life, with hundreds of thousands of hectares of countryside and entire townships devastated by bushfires in the south while floodwaters threaten towns and communities to the north. Only a small proportion of our population has had direct exposure to the floods of Northern Queensland or the bushfires in Victoria but, through the immediacy of media reporting and the dramatic visual imagery on our TV screens, we all feel it deeply and we are all affected. But we did not experience what so many people experienced last weekend—the agonising wait as fire approached our homes or the sheer terror of confronting rolling walls of fire or fighting for breath as the fireball sucked out the oxygen such that the air felt alight. Nor did we experience the loss of family, relatives, friends or colleagues or see homes, property, livestock, wildlife and habitats engulfed in fire.
As so many of our parliamentary colleagues know, across the nation people are reaching out to the thousands of Victorians whose lives have been so dramatically affected by these dreadful fires. We say to all those affected, while we cannot share your experience, we can provide support to you and try to comfort you as you start to rebuild your lives. For many people life will never be the same—the loss too great, the scars too deep. For many communities the task of rebuilding will take years, not weeks or months; decades even. For some it will take a generation or more.
I grew up in the Adelaide Hills in South Australia where the threat of bushfires was ever present—it was always with us. The year before I was born, a bushfire known as Black Sunday swept through the Hills with incredible ferocity. I am told it was so quick and so furious that it was over in a matter of hours. While very few lives were lost, the damage to property, services and business was incalculable—our orchard was razed to the ground; pine plantations ready for harvest and livestock were burned. It was 20 years or more before it returned a profit. Whole Hills communities were devastated and our lives were divided into two: life before Black Sunday and life after Black Sunday.
At my local primary school, the compulsory reading list in the mid-sixties included February Dragon, Colin Thiele’s story of the everyday lives of people in a township halfway between Melbourne and Adelaide, where the fearful February dragon, a bushfire, is unleashed through stupidity and carelessness with tragic consequences for the whole town. We all related to this story for it reflected our own community’s experience of a relatively simple and uncomplicated life before Black Sunday with the harsh and complex realities of life after Black Sunday. That is how it was until Ash Wednesday in 1983, when we experienced something more horrific than we had experienced before. It was a terrifying ordeal for South Australians and Victorians. Seventy-five lives were lost in fire-storm conditions over 12 hours or more—sudden and violent wind changes engulfing all in its path. As people once more set about picking up the pieces, they again divided their lives into life before Ash Wednesday and life after Ash Wednesday. That is how it will be for the family and friends of those who died last weekend in the Victorian bushfires.
We must reassure those who have lost their families, their homes, their belongings, their treasures, their businesses and their livelihoods that the Australian people understand that it will take time to heal the communities and that we are prepared for that. We must all appreciate and recognise that it takes time to re-establish lives, homes, farms, businesses and services. So our support must be ongoing. Our compassion for their plight must continue for as long as it is needed. Times of tragedy remind us of the fundamental, the essential and the enduring elements of human life—the bonds of family and friends and the bonds of communities—as people care for each other and look out for each other. This is exemplified by the heroic efforts of our emergency workers, particularly our firefighters. Many of them are volunteers, who put their lives at risk to save others. The whole nation thanks them for their selfless actions. At this time, we also think of the families of the emergency workers and the firefighters and understand and know what they go through during these terrible times as their loved ones leave their own homes to defend the lives and property of others.
My father was a volunteer firefighter for over 50 years. I can recall so vividly the sound of the siren at the local fire station during the summer months as it would wail out across the valley. I recall that sinking feeling as my father would head off to fight a fire, often to an unknown destination. Sometimes it would be days before we heard from him. All the while we would try to keep calm, trusting that he would return in time should our home be threatened by fire. So while we acknowledge the courage of our emergency workers and firefighters, we also remember their families, who are anxiously waiting for their safe return, knowing the dangerous and unpredictable circumstances that they face no matter how experienced or seasoned they may be.
Over many years Australia has battled to gain a better understanding of the nature of bushfires and the complex environmental, economic and social impact. A more nationally coordinated approach to bushfire research was boosted in 2003 with the formation of the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, which combines the efforts of more than 30 research, fire and land management agencies in Australia and New Zealand. As its press release of 12 January said:
Better resourcing, technology, community understanding, communications, acceptance of fire as a natural occurrence and the sharing of risk between property owners and fire agencies are just some of the lessons still being learnt through experience and rigorous scientific research.
After a civil disaster of this magnitude, it is hard to fathom the loss of life or quantify the emotional and economic cost, including the irreplaceable resources, to individuals and communities. But there are lessons to be learned and through research we must hold the hope that such disasters can be mitigated in the future. Australians are a resilient and optimistic people. While the prospect of rebuilding shattered lives may seem daunting, even insurmountable, today, it will be undertaken, it must be undertaken, with all the support that the Australian people, individually and through their governments, can offer and for however long it takes. I join with colleagues in offering our deepest condolences to the people of Victoria.
I commend the previous speakers and of course the motion. This is unquestionably Australia’s worst natural disaster. On current count, 107 lives have been lost but, as the Deputy Prime Minister indicated, regrettably that figure is likely to go higher. While it is truly a national disaster, it is unquestionably a personal tragedy for so many Australians.
My family, like that of the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, was affected by bushfire, in my case in 1994. As for so many Australians, I would think, these events have rekindled memories of the distress of that occasion. I can remember the fire moving literally at the speed of the wind across the Georges River. I can remember the young police officer trundling around—and sprinting around at the later stages—to get people out of their homes. I can remember returning home, with the lack of knowledge as to whether the house had survived, and seeing a neighbour whom I had never met before and have never seen since tipping buckets of water from the neighbour’s pool over fire surrounding the house. Unquestionably, that neighbour saved our home. Quite clearly, there are thousands and thousands of that neighbour around Australia and their experiences have been told and will be told.
As the Deputy Leader of the Opposition also indicated, many, many lives will never be the same again, particularly for those who have suffered the loss of a loved one. While we in this parliament can only acknowledge and identify with as best we can the suffering that has occurred, what we can do is commit to working together to assist the thousands of people and their families and communities to rebuild. As the Leader of the Opposition said, whatever it takes is what we are committed to.
Could I acknowledge the many messages of condolence from governments overseas and offers of assistance. The Victorian people should be aware of the intensity and depth of support for them. I also indicate our support and appreciation for the professionals in our volunteer services and, obviously, the volunteers themselves.
The government has taken immediate steps, as any government would, by establishing a $10 million emergency relief fund. But, as has been indicated, there will be much work to do in the rehabilitation ahead. The federal and state governments have also donated $4 million towards the official Victorian disaster relief appeal and, as has been indicated, Australians wanting to contribute to that appeal can do so by contacting the Red Cross. It has also been acknowledged by the Treasurer that there are private funds, notably from the National Australia Bank and the Bendigo Bank, that people are also able to contribute to.
In addition to the payments that were outlined by the Deputy Prime Minister and the Treasurer, there are payments available for individuals and businesses, including farms, that have been affected by the disaster, as well as assistance for emergency accommodation. That is available on the same contact number that was provided by the Deputy Prime Minister and the Treasurer.
The work of organisations such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army is outstanding, and the government has provided some additional assistance to enable them to continue that excellent work. As has also been acknowledged during the debate, the work of volunteer organisations around the state has been outstanding. The government has brought forward funding of some $2.6 million to assist those 160, at our count, emergency relief organisations who may need assistance in the short term, and they should not hesitate to call upon that.
Also in distress are the numbers of people who have not yet been able to make contact with their loved ones. In that context we would encourage all those who have been displaced to either contact the emergency relief agencies that are on the ground or phone 1800 727 033. Equally, anyone wanting to know the whereabouts of a friend or loved one is entitled to contact that number.
As has been pointed out, while we are obviously already focusing on the relief and recovery arrangements, the fires are still being fought by dedicated professionals and volunteers. We acknowledge their courage and tirelessness and appropriately, as the Deputy Leader of the Opposition indicated, the support that they have from their families. They have quite clearly prioritised the safety of the community over and above their own personal circumstances. Indeed, one of the more tragic stories is of volunteer firefighters who, on at least two occasions, have unfortunately lost loved ones who were left behind.
Details of the Victorian Country Fire Authority and numbers for contacting the authority should anyone be concerned about further developments or ongoing fire risks have already been given, and I will not repeat those.
I would, as I indicated the other day, express tremendous appreciation and admiration for the work of Emergency Management Australia. They are one of those organisations who are not to the forefront but behind the scenes. The Leader of the Opposition also received a briefing from them yesterday. They are doing an outstanding job in coordinating a whole-of-government response within federal agencies and across state agencies.
Appreciation has appropriately been expressed to the Australian defence forces, who have had representatives embedded in that structure. The fact that we have been able to obtain so many resources from the Australian defence forces has meant that we have not experienced the delay of acquiring those resources from private sources. In addition, the defence forces have contributed permanent personnel and a great number of reservists to assist in erecting tents and setting up stretchers and the like.
As has also been indicated today, the Australian defence forces have contributed expertise in search and rescue capability. Those soldiers will be self-contained. They will be able to travel far and wide to more remote communities to search for any person who may need assistance or, regrettably, to find if someone has lost their lives. As well, the fact that we are able to use defence aircraft for imagery will enable work to commence quickly on the rehabilitation of critical infrastructure that will be very important for getting the states on the road.
I should again also indicate our appreciation. Necessarily, an event such as this calls on the first responders, who are essentially state agencies, but it also demonstrates that this is truly a national crisis. It has been received as such, and I commend those volunteers who have come in from other states to support Victorian firefighters. While this is unquestionably a national disaster, it is a personal tragedy for so many Victorians, our fellow Australians, and I acknowledge that it is being treated as such by the authorities nationally and in the state.
I commend the Victorian Police Commissioner, who is clearly treating each individual loss of life with dignity, respect and resolve. She has indicated that she is regarding each fire as a potential crime scheme and that she will ensure that the full weight of the law is brought down on those who may have been responsible for deliberately lighting those fires. I also express our appreciation to the Australian Federal Police, who have contributed some 90 experts in victim identification and forensics to assist in that law enforcement operation. On a serious note, I say—and I know this is heartfelt across the chamber—that anyone who lights fires deliberately, with reckless disregard for the safety of their fellow Australians, in our view, establishes the requisite criminal intent that would sustain a charge of murder.
Honourable members—Hear, hear!
I note in fact that the Prime Minister has referred to such people as murderers. We would point out again that the same criminal principles in respect of accomplices apply, and we would strongly recommend anyone who has information about the deliberate lighting of fires to approach the authorities to provide that information.
We recognise and praise, as all speakers have done, the dedication and professionalism of those involved in fighting these fires, and we are full of admiration. But equally, as all speakers have indicated, there are lessons to be learned. While we support, salute and encourage them, we will obtain the debriefings, we will analyse, we will research, as has been said, and we will ensure that we learn all available lessons to, as best we can, prevent these events from ever occurring again.
I rise to support this condolence motion with the same feelings of shock, sadness and horror that are undoubtedly shared with everyone in this House and indeed all Australians. Even Dorothea Mackellar, the woman who captured the contrasting nature of rural Australia as no-one has done before or since, would most likely have been lost for words today as she tried to explain the horror that has struck her country, my country, our country over these last few days. Amidst the beauty and the wonder of our country, it can also be harsh and cruel. How can the idyllic landscapes also become killing fields?
No-one expected the horror of Victoria’s Black Friday in 1939. No-one thought it could happen again until Ash Wednesday struck with greater ferocity and death in 1983. ‘Never again,’ people said on that occasion. But, of course, tragically, we now know that it can happen again with greater power and loss of life—and in fact it has. This is the worst natural disaster in Australia’s recorded history in terms of lives lost and dwarfs any other peacetime disaster in its sheer scale and heartbreak. It came upon the communities with frightening speed. It crept up on the nation without warning. Earlier reports on Saturday suggested there may not have been any loss of life, but as the evening wore on we all fervently hoped that the rising death toll would be contained at levels that were already far too high. Today, with Victoria still burning and destroyed homes, businesses, cars and bushland still to be explored, we still do not know what the final loss of life will be. I am told the latest report as of a few minutes ago is that the death toll is now confirmed to be 128, and there may in fact be more.
One thing that I do know today is that Australian resilience will again come to the fore. The towns like Kinglake, Marysville, Narbethong, Callignee and Corinella will be rebuilt. Buildings can of course rise again and, as earlier speakers have said, can be rebuilt even with greater grandeur. Those who survived the weekend were born and bred in these places or they were born elsewhere and chose to live there and have grown to love these beautiful towns and communities. Most will want to stay and build their homes in spite of the heartbreak and the hardship and their businesses and their lives will be resumed.
As our population has drifted over the past decades to the cities and to the coast, Australians have retained our love, our attachment and our admiration for the bush and we cling to it wherever we can. What I think many of us in this place do not always understand is the attachment to the land that is felt by many country Australians. What they will do and what hardships they will endure to maintain that link are a precious part of Australia’s heritage. There might be some in the coming days who will ask why people live in areas that are bushfire prone. I say in reply: they are doing things that are important—important for them and important for their country. It is not bloody-mindedness; these are their homes. That is what is important to them and to their family—and, if it is important to them and them and their family, it is important to our nation.
The first priority is of course to extinguish the fires that still seriously threaten lives and buildings. Hopefully, the change of weather will mean that the worst is behind us. But, for the survivors, a new struggle is already on. I strongly support the measures announced today, and any other existing government measures, to ensure that the people in fire-ravaged Victoria can rebuild. We must stand ready to offer any further measures that may be needed to ensure that, at the appropriate time, after the mourning, reconstruction can start promptly. The short-term assistance that the government has offered will need to stretch into long-term assistance. I am sure that the three levels of government will do whatever is needed and that, once again, the generosity of the Australian people will come to the fore.
The federal member for Gippsland, Darren Chester, has remained in his electorate today to offer whatever support he can to the people in his communities. I spoke to him just an hour or so ago—and 21 of the confirmed deaths are in the Gippsland area. Whilst there has been quite a lot of media attention given to the fires around Churchill, in the plantation timber forests and in other areas, it is the little hamlets of Calignee and Corinella that have been particularly harshly hit. These little communities, near Traralgon, still have fires burning around them. He reminded me also of the people of Boolarra, where 30 homes were destroyed in a much less reported fire just last week. Last Friday the local radio station launched an appeal and raised $100,000 locally for the people of Boolarra. Many of the people who gave to that appeal now need much more themselves. We think very much, and with gratitude, of those people who are working hard to maintain the spirit of the local communities and to start planning for rebuilding.
The member for Gippsland told me some miraculous stories of people who have survived, and of others who seemed to be well-prepared but were just overwhelmed. He spoke of people standing in front of their destroyed homes, their lost businesses, their lost possessions, in shock and disbelief, but saying: ‘We’re the lucky ones; we’re alive.’ He also spoke—and I refer to the matters raised by the Attorney-General—of a building anger if reports that these fires were deliberately lit prove to be true. How could there be any Australian who would do such a thing? The whole nation has every right to rise in horror at the actions of people who respond in this way. The member for Gippsland also mentioned the emergency crews, the community workers and the councils, who are doing all they possibly can to ensure that the immediate needs of the people are being met.
Through the work of so many people on the ground helping the victims today, they can be assured that all Australians are thinking of them. At times like these they are not alone. The rest of Australia has begun to respond and help financially. The official appeals have begun and members of parliament are launching their own appeals. I am sure that this is one way in which we can all demonstrate our commitment to our fellow Australians at this time—those who are suffering a particular difficulty. The horror that these people have been through cannot in any full sense be shared with others, but we can offer them our loyalty, our support, our love, our care and our commitment for the future. We think especially of the injured—and many of them are seriously injured. We think of the doctors and nurses who are caring for them. We think of the loss of property. We think of the firefighters, the emergency workers, the police and the armed forces, who are doing so much to provide assistance at this vital time. We think of the counsellors and the people providing moral courage and support to so many in need. I stand with the others who have spoken before me, and with those who will speak afterwards and those who will not have an opportunity to speak today but feel the same things in their hearts. Fellow Australians who have been dreadfully struck by these events: you are not alone. All Australians are with you and we will help you in the years ahead.
I too rise in support of this condolence motion. No matter how good the news reporter, no matter how skilled the photographer, no matter how brave the cameraman, it is impossible for most of us to appreciate from media reports just what it is like to experience a horrific bushfire. When you speak to people who have been through these horrors, you hear firsthand about the towering flames and the unbelievable speed with which they engulf everything before them. You hear about the unbearable heat that burns your skin, blisters paint and melts solid objects before your very eyes. You hear about the dense, acrid smoke that makes it impossible to see more than a couple of feet around you—smoke that chokes and burns your airways as you try to breathe and irritates your eyes, making it even harder for you to see. You hear about the noise—the roar of the flames, the wailing of the sirens, the beating rotors of water-bombing helicopters and the intermittent explosions as the heat ignites gas cylinders. You hear about the guts and determination to save family members, pets and livestock, family homes and lifetimes of possessions. You hear about successful efforts to defeat the flames against all odds, and you hear about the despair when the flames win the unequal battle and devour homes and memories. And of course you hear about the loss of life—of family, friends, neighbours, pets, livestock and native wildlife.
Last weekend was one of the darkest in Victoria’s history. We knew it was coming. Weather forecasters had been telling us for weeks that the conditions were going to be deadly, the worst since Ash Wednesday 1983. Temperatures soared all around the state, and more than a month without rain compounded the effects of more than a decade of drought. The emergency services had been issuing warnings for days. Ten days earlier my electorate had a foretaste of what we could expect, when smaller fires threatened the townships of Malmsbury and Taradale. Many rural residents around my electorate heeded this warning and reviewed their personal fire-management plans. Fire-fighting equipment was checked and checked again. Protective clothing was at the ready. Last Saturday morning dawned bright and clear. Within hours the mercury was climbing as the temperature broke new records. The wind speed increased until it resembled some gigantic fan heater. Many people in Bendigo had been out early to do their shopping and had retreated to the comfort of their air conditioners to sit out the day. The day seemed to be passing quietly—until mid-afternoon.
Then, as the Prime Minister has said, ‘Hell in all its fury visited the good people of Victoria.’ It visited Bendigo in the form of a firestorm in the inner suburb of Maiden Gully. Within minutes 15-metre high flames raced through the tinder dry undergrowth towards the suburbs of West Bendigo, California Gully, Long Gully and Eaglehawk. Despite the warnings, a fire in the middle of the city came as a complete surprise to most of the residents. ‘I never thought I’d see this happen here,’ one told the local newspaper.
In the ensuing hours, the fire consumed homes, sheds, tractors and cars as it roared across the west of Bendigo. Three hundred firefighters tackled the inferno and countless residents battled to save their homes. Some succeeded; some did not. The area is now littered with burnt timbers and corrugated iron. Scorched brick chimney stacks stand like tombstones to the memory of the houses of which they were once part.
The final property toll is still not certain. This morning it appears that 20 homes have been confirmed as destroyed, and this figure could rise as high as 50 as the investigation teams continued to carry out their work. Sadly, it has been confirmed that at least one person has lost his life and there are reports of a possible second casualty that is yet to be confirmed. The confirmed fatality was a 48-year-old man who was confined to a wheelchair and could not escape from his burning home. Our thoughts and condolences go to his family and his friends at this difficult time.
At the same time that Bendigo was going through its own hell, another blaze at Redesdale, to the south-west of the city, was burning through 10,000 hectares of farmland and bush. Seven homes have been confirmed as destroyed, and this figure could reach 15 once the investigations have concluded. Fortunately, there appears to have been no loss of life in human form from this fire, but livestock and wildlife losses are expected to be significant.
Naturally, we offer our condolences to those who lose loved ones in tragedies such as this, but our thoughts must also be with those who have escaped with their lives but have lost their homes and livelihoods. It is, of course, true that houses can be rebuilt and furniture, televisions, carpets and curtains can all be replaced. So can important documents such as passports and drivers licences. But many other possessions lost in fires are irreplaceable. Photographs, old school reports, letters, childhood toys and family heirlooms are all part of who we are. When we lose these precious mementos we lose a part of ourselves. The scars of losing them can run deep indeed. So our thoughts are also with those who have survived this ordeal but lost their homes and precious possessions.
This morning the Bendigo fire is under control and the people affected are now in the recovery phase. Firefighters expect to have the fire at Redesdale contained later today. We must, of course, pay tribute to our emergency service workers. During the fires in my electorate there were countless heroic efforts to save people and possessions, and we must not forget that similar efforts are still being made in other parts of Victoria even as we speak today. Many of our firefighters are volunteers. They readily give up their spare time to protect our communities and they work tirelessly when called out to a fire. It is surely no exaggeration to say that we could not survive without them.
Our thanks also go to our police officers and medical emergency workers, whose efforts were indispensable. I would also like to thank the workers from the various organisations that are now helping the Bendigo and Redesdale communities recover from their ordeal—the officers and councillors from the Macedon Ranges Shire Council, other councils around Victoria and, in particular, the staff, officers and councillors of the City of Greater Bendigo, who have demonstrated superb organisational skills when implementing their long established disaster management system. This has been a huge help for those directly affected by this tragedy, and everyone in Bendigo should be extremely proud of the way they have carried out their roles and responsibilities.
State, federal and local government assistance is now available, and offers of help from the community and community organisations have been overwhelming. In a macabre way, Bendigo was fortunate last weekend. Other communities around Victoria have already suffered much greater loss of life and homes, and the danger continues while fires remain out of control. Our thoughts are with all those Victorians who are still battling the worst bushfire disaster in our history and with those who are starting the long road to recovery from its horrendous effects.
I would also like to thank all members of this House who have sent messages of goodwill and encouragement over the last couple of days—they were much appreciated.
In supporting this motion, which is describing one of the worst disasters in Australian history, I also represent my electoral neighbours, Fran Bailey, member for McEwen, and Sophie Mirabella, member for Indi. As I speak they are both with their communities, doing all they can to assist as the fires in those parts of Victoria still rage through the central highlands in the north-east and the beautiful Yarra Valley areas.
I was speaking to the member for McEwen about an hour ago. Fran Bailey has some clothes and family photos in her car. She is travelling from location to location, from one emergency centre to another. She did not go home last night—her Healesville home is in a vulnerable place and she is prepared to find it gone when she returns, perhaps tonight. But, like all members of this House in similar circumstances, with electorates threatened like hers, she will do all she can for as long as she can.
Sophie Mirabella, member for Indi, wants me to say on her behalf that she joins with her north-east residents in concern for the individuals and families affected by the fires, not only in her electorate, where fires still rage, but right across Victoria. Of course, we join with her in those sentiments, but how selfless of her to be thinking of others right now, with some of the most historic and still affluent parts of her electorate under direct threat.
Murray electorate, my electorate, crisscrossed by irrigation channels, has been spared all but two fires so far. But every available CFA volunteer and our police and emergency services are at the fire fronts. Our hospitals are taking burn victims and we stand ready to do all that is humanly possible to help save our neighbours. Now, and as they rebuild their lives and their communities in the weeks, months and years to come, they will need all of us. A donated truck from Shepparton is already loaded with donated goods and heading for the emergency centres in the regions beside us. And this is from the Murray region, which has been devastated by 10 years of drought and where there is no spare cash. But that is what Australians do, and that is what Australians, I am sure, will do in the days and weeks to come.
The death toll, as we have just heard, has now risen to 126. There is no doubt that, as the hours and days go past, that death toll will rise. Over 750 houses are gone. In whole towns, once renowned for their tourist attractions and their history—where Ned Kelly was jailed; where the first wines were grown—those houses are ash; those towns are ash. Water catchments and farmland are burnt out. Livestock and wildlife are destroyed. Victoria’s great Central Highlands mountain ash forests are burning. Northern and Central Victoria’s water supplies are already diminished through a decade of drought but, as these catchments burn, we will all face even greater hardship in the decades to come. It takes some 40 years for catchments to recover from fires like this, and so it will take a generation to recover from nature’s worst. In the years to come the legacy of these fires will be great, but we know that the human spirit is also great. We have seen historic old gold towns such as Bendigo burn—towns that have survived over 150 years of droughts, heat, high winds and lightning. But it seems that Victorians have never had to face conditions like those on the weekend: 48-degree-heat, 100-kilometre-an-hour winds and the north of the state, of course, tinder dry after years of drought.
I know all Australians are deeply shocked and are reaching out in heartfelt sympathy and with compassion to those wiped out or who remain in the path of the fires. The victims are traumatised and they are homeless. Hundreds of families and businesses have lost everything and they need our urgent support. I have no doubt that this aid will be forthcoming as ordinary men and women donate what they can. And, as you heard from the Leader of the Opposition, the coalition will support the government in everything they do. The $10 million mentioned so far, of course, will just be the beginning and, as the Leader of the Opposition said, whatever it takes is what we will be prepared to support.
I want to remind all Australians that most of the firefighters are volunteers—using equipment that their communities have fundraised to supply, training year in, year out in their own time and educating their own communities about the risk of fire. The men and women of the CFAs across the country are working across a life-threatening fire front in Victoria. Some know that, as they fight fires to save other people’s properties, their own homes and their own families may suddenly come into the fire path. But they do not hang back. They are fighting these fires with raw courage and in conditions no-one in the rest of Australia could possibly imagine. Two firefighters have already had the tragic news that, while they were on their community duty, their own families have lost their lives. One firefighter is also now reported as dead. Australia needs to acknowledge and never forget this extraordinary, magnificent effort—this love of country and consideration of others that drive volunteers, neighbours and our professional services to give their all in the face of such a disaster.
We often and rightly remind ourselves of the defining characteristics and values of Australians, which, we commonly say, were forged on the battlefields—in World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War and wherever we have been peacekeepers. But perhaps these characteristics were not forged on the battlefields under enemy fire, but were carried into the campaigns by ordinary men and women who had battled with natural disasters back home. Sophie, Fran and I want to thank all who are making a superhuman effort in and from our electorates. We want to acknowledge all Victorians who right now are worried about their parents, their brothers and sisters, their children and their neighbours and who are hoping and praying that they do survive.
As well, we want to acknowledge the interstate and international offers of help—for example, the 100 firefighters from New Zealand, the banks and other businesses which are already organising donations and the Red Cross and other organisations which are making their usual huge contribution. I also want to commend and thank the ABC, particularly station 774, which has, since this disaster began, made sure around the clock that they transmit excellent communication about the fire fronts, the road closures and road dangers, where to go and where not to go and carry community messages. I commend the ABC for this effort. I think it has helped to make a difference.
The impacts of these fires will be felt for decades. The deaths of the men, women and children caught in the inferno, however, will remain a tragedy always. We grieve with the families and mourn their loss. And, in the years to come, we must remember them and learn how to better deal with fires in our great but awful country. I commend this motion to the House.
It is fitting that our nation’s parliament, the one place in which all of Australia is represented, sends a message of condolence for the terrible loss of life and property that occurred over the weekend in Victoria. I think we are all in a state of shock as the overwhelming reality of what occurred sinks in; such terrible devastation, such terrible loss of life, such pain for many—and it is not over yet. Words cannot express the grief, loss, fear and sheer terror that the people who have been in the front of these fires have experienced. The thoughts and prayers of this parliament are with those who have lost their families and those who are yet to find out their fate. Some 126 have been confirmed dead and, heartbreakingly, some of them were very young children. We grieve for every one of them.
From the people of Ballarat, we grieve for all those affected, but I particularly want to send a strong message of support to the people of Bendigo. Sometimes we have a healthy rivalry, but in this we are your neighbours and we will do everything we can to assist you. I want to also send a message to our emergency services, including their volunteers, who are working tirelessly in the midst of this tragedy. CFA Region 15 firefighters from my own electorate, like all firefighters from our state, have been tackling these ferocious fires over the last three days. Nine strike teams from my district are currently supporting the fight against the Maiden Gully, Redesdale, Kilmore East and Bunyip fires. These strike teams include some 250 firefighters, and the local DSE have also contributed some 100 people to the efforts. This number is replicated across the state by CFA volunteers and also by the metropolitan fire brigade and the DSE. I also want to acknowledge the efforts of interstate brigades.
As a CFA volunteer not able to be on active duty at present, I know the loss of life will be felt keenly by all members. I know how hard you have fought to protect people and their homes in the face of what has been an overwhelming fire. I know that, because of the loss of life, morale will be pretty low. But I want to send a strong message from this parliament to our CFA volunteers: thank God you were there. How much worse would it have been had you not been? Thank God you were there.
I also want to acknowledge other personnel who were at staging areas across the state, feeding and supporting firefighters and devastated communities: the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and our many other welfare organisations, medical staff across Victoria’s hospitals dealing with terrible burns and the members of Victoria Police who will be critical in helping communities recover and in catching the perpetrators of this terrible act. I also thank the families, many of them anxiously waiting at home, and employers of emergency service volunteers for supporting the men and women and their efforts.
Many people want to know what they can do to help, and of most practical assistance today is donating blood through the Red Cross and donating money to the Victorian bushfire relief fund. I asked the Region 15 brigade what message they wanted to get out today and, overwhelmingly, they want this parliament and the people listening to this broadcast to know that many fires are still out of control and that the potential for dangerous fires in other areas, including my own, still exists and will continue for some time, especially in the absence of significant rainfall. People need to be vigilant, ensure their bushfire plans are in place and recognise that this fire season has a long way to run yet.
Even once the final embers have been extinguished, the effects of these fires will long continue. Communities, families and friends will mourn for loved ones lost. Those who have seen their homes destroyed will be faced with the task of re-establishing their lives. Entire communities will take some time to rebuild. Firefighters who have been face to face with the fires and the devastating loss of life will continue to grieve and deal with the devastation they have witnessed. On behalf of the people of my electorate I offer my condolences, but more importantly we offer our support as people make their way through this crisis and slowly rebuild their lives. The thoughts of this parliament are with all Victorians today.
Speaking in support of the motion moved by the Deputy Prime Minister and supported by all other speakers, I would like to start by saying it is very hard to know where to start. You look at the headlines in today’s papers and take a small snapshot: ‘Hell and its fury’; ‘Disaster beyond belief’; ‘From the air, it’s like Armageddon’. We hear the latest figures: the death toll 126; 750 houses lost; many others injured. But I am warned by my colleagues, like the member for McEwen, Fran Bailey, that those losses will increase.
It is certainly worse than Ash Wednesday in 1983, when 75 lost their lives, or Black Friday in 1939, when 71 lost their lives. I think it is impossible to imagine the terrifying last moments of those 126 and others we are yet to hear of. Maybe the article written by Gary Hughes of his own experience in today’s Australian captures just some of the magnitude of this enormous disaster for individuals. As a former Country Fire Authority captain myself at the time of the Ash Wednesday fires, I have never seen anything like last Saturday’s fires. I cannot even pretend to fully appreciate the courage of our volunteers.
There were two what I would call relatively minor fires in Wannon, but I would like to particularly empathise with my colleagues the member for McEwen, Fran Bailey, and the member for McMillan, Russell Broadbent, who has had five fires in his area—and they are still going. I also empathise with the member for Indi, Sophie Mirabella; the member for Bendigo, Steve Gibbons; the member for Gippsland, Darren Chester; and my neighbour, the member for Mallee, John Forrest, who had a particularly nasty fire at Horsham. Like all members, I am shocked, I am saddened and I am horrified, but I admire the community support and know that it is times like these that communities really pull together.
As the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Victorian Premier and everyone else who has spoken today, including the Leader of the Opposition, have said, the fact that the federal and state governments have moved quickly is something that we know is truly Australian, and they will certainly give generous support. I know that all members of this parliament will support that. I know that all Australians will be very generous and they will give to the different appeals and help in so many ways. In an act that may typify something we hope to see repeated, one of my constituents from Heywood rang today to say that his family would donate the $950 from the government’s new package to the Red Cross. I hope his example will inspire many others to follow.
The local losses in my electorate of Wannon, unlike those in the Ash Wednesday fires, were relatively minor compared to others. On the outskirts of the town of Coleraine, 800 hectares burnt. In Camperdown, 1,300 hectares burnt and it would appear that both those fires were not deliberately lit. But I cannot say the same about the Horsham fire in my neighbour’s electorate of Mallee. Eight houses and the Horsham golf club are gone, and the feeling is that the fire was deliberately lit. I think the anger towards such behaviour, as it has been displayed throughout Victoria, is only just starting to rise to the surface, and I am sure we will hear much more about that. Frankly, I find what goes through the head of a firebug incomprehensible.
Again, I support the comments of all other members. Like them, I am thinking of those directly involved in the bushfires. I admire the extraordinary efforts of volunteers and express my deep and sincere condolences to those who have been directly affected and to those whose families have been affected. We remain conscious that the full magnitude of this disaster is yet to be realised. We know that fires are still burning and hope that volunteers’ extraordinary efforts will enable those fires to be brought under control sooner rather than later. I support the motion.
Through this motion the House expresses its deepest condolences to family, friends, work colleagues and acquaintances of those who have lost their lives in these tragic bushfires. The motion expresses sympathy and compassion for those who have lost property, whether it be buildings, livestock or pets. The motion expresses our gratitude to professional and, importantly, volunteer members of emergency and health services and community support agencies for their expertise, diligence and courage.
The electorate of Scullin was only vaguely affected by these fires, with a small fire in Plenty Gorge. However, there are four major north-south roads that traverse fortress Scullin and, if you travel along them for five to 20 kilometres, each ends in tragedy. If you go up the Hume Highway towards Kilmore you get to Wandong. High Street and Epping Road also end up in Wandong. If you travel along Plenty Road you go through the township of Whittlesea and end up in Kinglake West and Kinglake. Yan Yean Road becomes Coombs Road, Kinglake.
As a product of the northern suburbs, I feel that many of the places that have been mentioned in this debate should not be places of such sadness. Kinglake, St Andrews, Kinglake West, Steels Creek, Flowerdale, Wandong, Humevale, Strathewen and Arthurs Creek are places that should not be on a list of death and destruction. They are places of picnics and weddings. They are places to collect wood with grandparents for slow combustion stoves. They are places to get lost on Scout hikes. They are places to sit on the pub veranda accompanied by a cool ale or a glass of Australian wine. One of the things that we know about these places is that they are people’s homes. These are places that are people’s livelihoods.
Through this debate one of the sentiments that has been expressed is that of resilience, and other characteristics of Australia have also been mentioned. Yesterday afternoon I briefly visited the Whittlesea Community Activity Centre, which was spoken about by the Leader of the Opposition. It was very hard to witness people coming down the hill, mostly from Kinglake, to register their names and to seek information from the Red Cross about missing family members, but the sense of collective action was something that I was encouraged by.
When I was travelling along Plenty Road on the first part of my journey back to this place, I was heartened to see an SES vehicle from a suburb in the southern part of Melbourne and to pass a convoy of CFA trucks from Geelong, the Bellarine Peninsula, the Surf Coast and Aireys Inlet, a place that has suffered so much over time through bushfire. The sense of collective action and mateship is very important. Many of the things that we see on TV quite correctly expose us to the tragedy of these events and it is sometimes hard to understand what it all means. But I think we should understand that there is a great resolve to tackle the things that confront us.
A sense of place is not just about physical structures; it is really about people themselves. As has been said in this debate, communities will rebuild because of the resilience of their people. We must give them our love and support and lend them our shoulders. We must first lend them our shoulders to cry on so that they may grieve and gain closure. Then, hopefully, we can put our shoulders to the wheel and support these communities and individuals in the rebuilding that will be required. When we do so, these communities will return. They will be places that we can visit—where we can picnic, get lost on hikes and have a quiet ale in a beer garden. I know that members of the House are as one in expressing our sympathy and support for fellow Australians in the affected communities. We will do all we can with all our resolve. As a mark of respect, I invite honourable members to rise in their places.
Honourable members having stood in their places—
I thank the House.
Debate (on motion by Mr Albanese) adjourned.