Wednesday, 27 November 2019
Statements on Indulgence
I rise today to speak on the devastating bushfires that have been impacting much of New South Wales and Queensland and indeed other states over several weeks. Our emergency services have once again shown their skill, dedication and courage in the face of very difficult conditions. I thank all of the career and volunteer emergency services personnel who have been fighting these fires. Our government's first concern is for the safety and needs of those directly affected, particularly those who have lost their homes and, worse still, have lost loved ones. Although conditions have eased, the threat is not over yet. Elevated fire danger conditions will continue over the fire grounds in north-east New South Wales and South-East Queensland. As we've seen, these fires can flare up quickly, and I urge people to stay informed and monitor conditions.
I want to speak about the impact of the recent fires in my electorate of Bradfield. On the afternoon of Tuesday 12 November, residents of South Turramurra received an abrupt and unpleasant reminder of how vulnerable to bushfires the North Shore of Sydney can be. Thanks to the quick response from the Hornsby/Ku-ring-gai Rural Fire Service, the fire in South Turramurra was contained within one hour and spanned only five hectares. Two strike teams comprising five trucks were deployed to handle the fire, while two aircraft and one air tanker brought the fire under control from the air. The impact of the air tanker in particular was extremely impressive. The fire caused minimal damage to houses; some houses suffered minor damage as fires reached their roof cavities.
Let me express my thanks on behalf of all of the residents of Bradfield to Inspector Rolf Poole and all of the team at the Hornsby/Ku-ring-gai Rural Fire Service for their work on this occasion and for the ongoing service they provide to our community. As the Prime Minister observed on his visit to the fire affected communities across New South Wales and, indeed, other parts of Australia, Australians are at their best at difficult moments like this. They show great spirit, heart and generosity.
Only a few streets away from the fire the Guru Nanak Gurudwara Turramurra Sikh Temple was preparing to celebrate the 550th birth anniversary for Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the first guru of Sikhs and the founder of the Sikh faith. Many Sikhs from across Sydney were coming to Sydney for these celebrations. Mr Pritpal Singh Bhatia, a resident of South Turramurra and member of the Turramurra Sikh Temple, evacuated from his home and went to the temple to inform other members of what was going on. When Harbir Bhatia, Pritpal's brother and president of the North Shore Sikh Association of Sydney, heard what was happening he said, 'It just clicked that there are volunteers and other firefighting professionals who are working hard to save the properties and putting their own lives at risk. Let us do what our religion teaches us—at least give them some food and water.'
A team of men and women from the temple began to pack langar, a community lunch, for those who were fighting the fires. Three types of rice and vegetarian curries were packed, water bags were picked up and two cars were driven back towards the evacuation zone to distribute the food to the firefighters. It did not take long before a continuous supply chain was set up between the temple and the firefighters, as more vehicles and volunteers with food and water were dispatched. Supplies were also offered to local residents who had evacuated from their homes. May I say that, having myself had the opportunity on more than one occasion to enjoy a delicious meal at the Turramurra Sikh Temple after visiting there for a service, the food is remarkable. I'm sure everybody who was privileged to enjoy it had their spirits lifted.
Many volunteers from the Sikh temple helped on the day. Not all can be named, but there are a few people I would like to single out in particular: Harbir Pal Singh Bhatia, Pritpal Singh Bhatia, Tejinder Singh, Parneet Singh Bhatia, Charanjeet Singh, Devpal Singh, Sehajdeep Singh, Manjit Singh Sidhu, Satinder Singh, Amarjit Bhatia, Jessie Bhatti, Neelu Singh and Ichha Kaur Mannat Kaur.
It continues to be the case, of course, that fires are burning across large parts of north-east New South Wales and in other parts of Australia. These fires have now burnt through more than 1.4 million hectares in New South Wales. As at 8:30 this morning 129 fires were still burning across the state. Firefighters have faced extremely demanding conditions over these past weeks. Dozens of people have been injured, including many firefighters. Tragically, four people have lost their lives as a result of these fires, and I express my sympathies to their families and loved ones at this difficult time.
Evacuation centres in New South Wales remain activated to support fire-affected communities. More than 1,600 firefighters and support personnel, along with 95 aircraft, have been battling these fires. Can I inform my community in Bradfield that there are a number of supports available to those affected by bushfires. For those in the Ku-ring-gai local government area, the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements, jointly funded by the New South Wales and Commonwealth governments, have been activated. This assistance is administered by the New South Wales government. Anyone in need of assistance should contact the New South Wales government Disaster Welfare Assistance Line on 1800 018 444.
The Australian government's disaster recovery allowance has also been activated for the Ku-ring-gai area. This payment is a short-term income support payment to assist individuals who have experienced a loss of income as a direct result of the bushfires.
A division having been called in the House of Representatives—
Sitting suspended from 17:33 to 17:39
Anyone who has been adversely affected by the bushfires in New South Wales can contact the Department of Human Services and test their eligibility for the payment. Let me also take this opportunity to note that only two weeks after the electorate of Bradfield experienced an emergency bushfire warning, our community was yesterday battered by a severe hailstorm, causing significant damage to homes and property and creating extensive blackouts. Ku-ring-gai SES volunteers are actively responding to over 500 requests for assistance. I would like to express my gratitude to Unit Controller David Catterall and all of the volunteers who sacrificed their time to help our community in this time of need. I spoke to Mr Catterall today, and he informed me that SES units from our local area, supported by some from surrounding regions, started work shortly after the storm hit yesterday and were still going at midnight last night, before being back at work this morning. If you require assistance in a storm related emergency, you are encouraged to call the SES on 132500. Of course, if it's a life-threatening emergency, please contact triple 0.
I conclude by thanking all who have worked to respond to the threat of bushfires and other natural disasters over recent weeks. I thank them for their courage and for their service to our community.
If people think that the fires we're seeing are business as usual, they're clearly not looking at a map of New South Wales. It's been a month since the Gospers Mountain bushfire began. It's in my electorate of Macquarie and many other electorates around me. It is a huge fire. Hundreds of volunteer rural firefighters and members of the SES, as well as New South Wales parks and wildlife and fire and rescue staff, have been on the go, day and night, simply trying to control it. We've also had great support from the CFA—and I have never been so happy to see a Victorian as I was when their trucks rolled up a week or so ago! Realistically, people are not trying to extinguish this fire. It's too big for that. They're just trying to move it around and through so that it causes as little damage as possible. We're simply waiting for huge amounts of rain. As of this morning, the area burnt is 188,507 hectares, with a perimeter of 570 kilometres. The sporadic rainfall and new fires started by lightning haven't helped the efforts to bring it under control, and this fire is likely to flare up and expand until we have those decent rains.
We have had an emergency in the Hawkesbury. We've lost two homes. We've lost property, fences, farmland. There have been losses to business. There has been dislocation of families. An emergency is not defined by mass house losses or by death. It doesn't need to be a tragedy to be an emergency. There are people who are impacted. I spoke to Colo Heights residents who were away from their homes for nearly two weeks. Some were staying with friends, some were with relatives and some were in caravan parks. One woman had no information, because there was no central place to go to find out what the current situation was, so she called me to see if it was okay to go home. Another Colo Heights woman has carried heavy losses. There is the cost to repair fencing—and this is really typical of what people are now going home to; there is the refilling of water tanks, because there's no town water; and there is the huge clean-up of trees that were felled but not mulched as the fire moved closer. Power has been lost, obviously, so fridges and freezers need to be cleared out. There is stock to be relocated and taken back to properties. There is a lot of cost involved. People have taken time off work to fight the fires, not only around their own properties but around their neighbours'. Of course, many of our RFS volunteers have also taken time off work.
The people directly affected by the fires on their properties are now facing pretty heavy costs. I asked questions this week about why the Hawkesbury was not included in the new announcement by the New South Wales and federal governments. I really support the announcement of additional funding for the north of the state—that's as it should be; they've had a horrific time there, and they will need immediate and long-running help—but our businesses, our farmers, places like the Settlers Arms pub in St Albans, are not eligible for the $15,000 grants, yet they are businesses that have lost business. People have lost income.
A division having been called in the House of Representatives—
Sitting suspended from 17:44 to 18:20
During these fires I have been amazed at the determination of the Rural Fire Service leadership in the Hawkesbury under Karen Hodges, who has brought together the various districts affected by fire—from the Blue Mountains to the Hunter in the north and Lithgow in the west—and also at the willingness of so many volunteers from within the Hawkesbury and across Sydney to show up for very long shifts after shifts. This has been going on for a month. There have been weeks of intense 24-hours-a-day firefighting. In the mornings, when the night shift hands over to the day shift, I see the tiredness starting to grow. You'd not be a human being if you were not exhausted by the sort of effort that they are making.
I say to the volunteers, who can travel for hours either side of their shift: thank you for what you're doing. Last Friday I came across a crew from Davidson and I recognised former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. As I have with all the firefighters, I thanked him for being part of the effort that's being made in the Hawkesbury. Not only do those volunteers do 12- or 17-hour shifts but they then front up for their paid work the next day—except those who have employers who are good enough to give them time off work.
A division having been called in the House of Representatives—
Sitting suspended from 18:22 to 18:50
The volunteers who have been on site trying to control these fires for the last month have done an incredible job, supported, of course, by SES, police, and Parks and Wildlife, who have been fully involved in the process. A very grateful community has wanted to do whatever it can to help the firefighters. While meals are provided by the Hawkesbury headquarters, the community has been keen to donate all of the snacks that get the firefighters from their brigade to the fire site. We've been really pleased to help collect and distribute those supplies—everything from chips and electrolytes through to lip balm and all the things that make the job just a little bit easier. I spent Saturday distributing some of those supplies and I was able to talk to people from right up the top at Bilpin. I have also been in to see the Yarramundi mob and the Winmalee firefighters. The mountains firefighters have been putting in hours and hours of effort to help contain this blaze, because we know that it's not that far from the Blue Mountains. It's a huge fire and it's going to keep growing.
Thank you to everyone who has donated—people like the staff of WISE Employment; Kurrajong Kitchen, who were very generous with their lavosh; individuals like Anthony and Sophie; and people like Alison and Kirsty, who helped get supplies not just to rural fire brigades but also to residents of Colo Heights who weren't able to get easy access in and out of their properties but who didn't want to leave the area while the fires were really active. I'm pleased to see that the police have today been able to open Putty Road up to Colo Heights. That makes a huge difference and will help with the recovery process.
One of the things that hasn't been working so well is telecommunications and I really want to flag with the government and with Telstra and Optus that there is a lot of work to be done to give people peace of mind—people like the residents of Mountain Lagoon, who have no landlines. There's no mobile signal there and they have no landlines. When a bushfire is in the area and heading their way, that is a huge concern. I will continue to be a very noisy voice in making sure that those communications are restored and maintained. Another place where that's an issue is Saint Albans. It would be great to see the black spot mobile towers that have been promised actually delivered. There is extra anxiety when fires are around, and people deserve to be able to communicate. The NBN truck that we saw outside parliament today, a mobile truck to deliver communications, could provide great benefit, but we actually need to see things like that in the field, as well as having Telstra and Optus putting in mobile equipment—temporary, portable equipment—so that people can have communication.
There has been an extraordinary effort by firefighters, police, emergency services, all of the people I have named and the community. I've been a bit underwhelmed by the response at a local level from the state government and the local council. They have made efforts, but I've got to say that I think we can learn from what we've seen so far with this fire. There is a whole lot more we can do. We can have elected representatives at RFS community sessions to hear what people are feeling and experiencing. We can open contact points, so people have a single place to go to get information. If people are told to head to Wilberforce, there could be safe places they know they can go to. Those safer neighbourhood places really don't exist in the Hawkesbury. So I think there's a lot that we can do and I think we have to better recognise when we are in an emergency. We have had an emergency. Businesses have suffered. Lives have been impacted. Community members have been through terrible things. Two homes have been lost, and a lot of property has been destroyed. Anyone who doesn't think it's been an emergency is out of touch. And it's not summer yet.