Wednesday, 27 November 2019
Statements on Indulgence
I'd like to update the House this evening on the state of four major bushfires that have been burning in my community—in some cases, for many months—and, very sadly, it has taken the lives of two people, Gwen Hyde and Bob Lindsey, whose lives were taken a couple of months ago.
The first fire that I want to talk about is the Border Trail fire, which is on the border between New South Wales—
A division having been called in the House of Representatives—
Sitting suspended from 18:58 to 19:15
As I said, I'd just like to update the House on four significant and major bushfires that in many cases have been burning in my electorate and my community for a number of months. I mentioned the very tragic deaths of Gwen Hyde and Bob Lindsey whose lives have been taken in these fires. I want to run through literally the four separate fires and where they're burning.
The first one I want to mention is the Border Trail fire, which is burning on the border between Queensland and New South Wales, and for a number of weeks has had the community of Woodenbong all but under siege. I went up there when the community was highly threatened by an emergency level with this fire, and the one thing that I took out of that was just what a resilient community Woodenbong is. On one night there were 53 utes in Woodenbong, all with water tanks on the back and hoses fitted because not only are the RFS doing a great job there—and they're getting aerial support as well—but the community themselves are doing a wonderful job to keep their community safe.
The second fire is the Myall Creek fire. This is an amazingly large fire which has burned something like 80,000 to 90,000 hectares now. It's the fire that a couple of months ago went through Rappville and caused complete carnage there. Another front of it went along to Bora Ridge and actually burnt down a mate of mine's home—Doug Wood. The southern front of it is now threatening communities like Woombah and Iluka. The northern end when the southerly blows—in fact today it's blowing up towards Swan Bay and Woodburn. On the western front, it's been causing havoc around Baryulgil and Whiporie, but this is a massive fire.
The other fire that I'd like to mention is the Mount Nardi fire, which is burning—actually I see the member for Richmond here today—in both our communities. It's burning native rainforest that people thought would never burn. In fact the member and I went to a briefing on an emergency-level day when there was a westerly wind blowing at Casino with Michael Brett and his team who are, again, doing a wonderful job. I want to acknowledge the community of Nimbin and surrounding villages which have done a great job and been very supportive of each other when they were under siege from that fire.
The fourth fire is a fire now known as the Liberation Trail fire—it's the merging of two fires. This fire has burnt out Nymboida and caused complete havoc there. I was there four or five days after it literally took out Nymboida. A lot of homes have been burnt down. The day I was there a lot of RFS volunteers from other parts of the state, and indeed New Zealand, were there. I was very thankful and I thanked them for coming over to support our community.
Another front on one of the worst days of the fire was threatening communities like Glenreagh and Nana Glen. I went to an information day organised by the RFS at Nana Glen where they were giving out very useful information about how to keep your homes safe if you're planning to defend your home.
In all, the figure—and it's probably higher than that because it keeps moving—something like 700,000 to 800,000 hectares of my community have been burnt out by this fire. It's burnt out timber plantations. It's burnt across people's sugarcane farms. It's burnt people's beef properties and it's obviously gone through some villages as well. It's caused havoc. We will recover, and there's going to be a lot of money and support going to help our community to recover. It has certainly tested the resilience, but the community resilience has been a sight to behold.
I'd like to acknowledge the RFS. There have been over 1,300 field and support personnel deployed, supported by close to 400 vehicles and a large number of aircraft. Over 1,500 interstate firefighters, incident management teams and aviation resources have been deployed over the last four or five weeks. The assessment of the property impacted by these fires across the wider region—wider than my area—is 663 homes destroyed and 247 damaged; 59 facilities destroyed and 69 damaged; and 1,382 outbuildings destroyed. We're very grateful, as I said, to the RFS volunteers. One of the first fires was in Rappville and there have been some amazing stories from not just RFS volunteers but, indeed, members of the community. One guy in Rappville, Gary, literally sat in a tree as the fire was encroaching. Rappville was surrounded and they couldn't get out. The community went to the local school. Gary sat in a tree—which is a very dangerous place to be when you have a fire approaching—with an RFS hose and was literally washing out the embers as they were landing on the school roof. There were many other stories like that from around the whole region.
I'd also like to mention some of the other agencies who have worked to protect our communities: the State Emergency Service, the New South Wales Police, Fire and Rescue, the Australian Defence Force, Local Land Services, NSW Health, RMS, the National Parks and Wildlife, and Essential Energy. Essential Energy is just one example—and there are many; I could give examples from all around the region. In the Rappville fire, something like 300 power poles were destroyed, so obviously Rappville didn't have power. Those 300 power poles were all replaced within three days, and Essential Energy workers did an amazing job to get that done. There have been a number of volunteer groups who have moved into our region, offering support. I really want to mention BlazeAid Team Rubicon and Samaritan's Purse. BlazeAid have been coming in and helping farmers to refence because obviously once the fire came through and ravaged everything, cows or beasts that did survive were wandering around with no fences to contain them and causing potential danger on roads. They've been there for months.
I want to also acknowledge the Office of Emergency Management, which has appointed recovery coordinators, and the Rural Assistance Authority is managing recovery packages. The Australian Defence Force have been doing amazing things. They've been doing reconnaissance and emergency movement of firefighters; air transport for intrastate and interstate travel for firefighters and strike teams; specialised satellite imagery of impact areas; accommodation and sustenance for people at different Air Force bases; and a lot of logistics at the Casino fire control centre. It was good to see the state government of New South Wales give BlazeAid a $1.3 million grant to help them to support our communities. I also welcome the appointment of Euan Ferguson, who is the disaster recovery coordinator. I know him well—I don't want him to take this personally—unfortunately. He was a recovery officer when Lismore flooded in 2017. I'd also like to report that the Office of Emergency Management have set up disaster welfare points. These centres are staffed by Communities and Justice, Red Cross, Salvation Army and chaplains. There are centres around the region.
A number of assistance measures have been announced since these fires have been causing havoc. Just last week, with the New South Wales government, we announced the community recovery package for farmers and small businesses. If your farm or even a small business has been damaged by the fire, there are grants of up to 15 per cent and there is money available for councils as part of this as well. It includes a package of community projects grants for public infrastructure, and there are going to be mental health support services along with that. We've announced clean-up grants, which we're giving to local councils. A lot of the houses that burnt down contained asbestos. This has been very expensive for councils, and we've been helping councils and funding councils to deal with that.
The national disaster declarations have also made many other things available. There's been, as I said, support for local councils. There are concessional interest rate loans for some businesses, freight subsidies for primary producers, and grants for non-profit organisations. There have been things set up at some of the agricultural organisations for people to go and get fodder to feed their animals, because obviously they have no feed. We also have the disaster recovery payment. If you've lost your house to fire or been otherwise affected by it, there's $1,000 per adult and $400 per child. There's also the disaster recovery allowance. I know that the timber mill near Rappville burnt down, so those workers have been able to immediately access the recovery allowance. There's obviously also been a lot of damage done to our wildlife, and a lot of support has been given and money donated to the Australian Koala Foundation and local land services.
This has been one of the most horrific, damaging, debilitating things to affect our community in a long time, but we will get out of this and we will work together to do that.
I too rise to speak on the devastating fires that have affected many areas, particularly in New South Wales and Queensland—in fact, right across the country. I note that I'm following the member for Page. Our electorates adjoin one another. It has been a very devastating time, and I endorse the comments that he made. It has been a very devastating time for our region following on from the horrendous floods we had only two years ago. It has been a very difficult time, and I acknowledge his comments, the comments of all members and also the contributions of the Prime Minister and the opposition leader, with their respective statements to parliament. I know there's been widespread concern across the House in relation to the devastating impact of these fires across the country, and the concern, quite rightly, is still there. I would also like to acknowledge the Australians who tragically lost their lives in these fires. It is horrendous. We've seen those lives lost. We've seen property lost. We've seen so much damage. It is truly heartbreaking, as many in this House have mentioned.
I was pleased that, recently, the opposition leader was able to come to the area. He had a look at the area with me, the state member for Lismore and also the member for Page. He went to both Casino and Nimbin and was able to speak with many people there. It was great to meet with many of the emergency personnel, who are doing an outstanding job, the amazing volunteers and all the people who are battling those ferocious fires. It has been a remarkable effort by all of the associated agencies that have been involved, who have been working so well together in such difficult circumstances. As hard as it may be, it is amazing to see the bravery and sense of duty and service that both the emergency personnel and the volunteers demonstrate in their roles. I certainly want to acknowledge and thank all the brave men and women who fought, and are still fighting, so desperately to keep us all safe, and all of the agencies involved.
I also want to acknowledge the tremendous community support for all the personnel who are doing such difficult work and the support for the volunteers, often from their employers. There is also the general community support and I want to acknowledge the amount the community's given in terms of assisting those involved. I also commend our local print and radio journalists who report on these matters—it's so vital that they share important information—especially the ABC in Lismore, which did a remarkable job in providing information to the community. Their commitment to and vigilance, if you like, in reporting and providing information to those involved was absolutely vital, because at times like this people need to get access to as much information as they can. I know that our local ABC did that very admirably under difficult circumstances. They were working long shifts as well. Information is so important in these situations, and I'd certainly like to acknowledge the work that they do.
I referred to the visit by the opposition leader. We were initially briefed at the RFS headquarters in Casino, and we very much appreciated the very extensive and very informative briefing we received about the state of the fires at that time and in response to the concerns we had and still have. There are concerns for areas right across the region, particularly in the electorate of Richmond. As the member for Page mentioned, there's the Mount Nardi fire and its impacts. While it remains at 'advice' level and, at this moment, is reported as 'contained', it is still of huge concern, as are all the fires on the North Coast. It's one of many that we are all watching. It is of major concern, from the perspective of the electorate of Richmond, but there are many other fires throughout the region. We had the briefing from the RFS in Casino. We then went on to Nimbin—