Senate debates

Wednesday, 7 February 2007

Matters of Public Interest

Black Tuesday Bushfires

1:09 pm

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to remember the Black Tuesday bushfires in Hobart. Today is the 40th anniversary of those fires on 7 February 1967. For those who are unaware of the extent of the tragedy, 110 separate fires were burning in southern Tasmania on that day. Many of them joined together to form an inferno. In just five hours, 62 people lost their lives, 900 were injured, at least 1,300 homes were destroyed, 7,000 people were left homeless and half a million acres were burned. It was the largest loss of life in a single day in Tasmania’s history from such an event. It was a trauma for Tasmania. It is a small community and everybody knew someone who was in some way affected.

I was a boarder at St Mary’s College in Hobart at that time. I recall that particular day vividly because the city was completely shrouded in smoke, the sun was red and the winds were very strong. We knew the fires were close, but we did not know how close. In fact, they came to within two kilometres of the post office, so right into the city. There in part lies the significance of the 1967 fires in Hobart, because until then around Australia there had been a view that fires were bushfires—they occurred outside large urban areas. The Tasmanian fires were the first time that such fires swept into the suburbs in a way that encroached almost on the heart of the city. In fact, in Forest Road in West Hobart 16 homes were destroyed.

We had a situation—this was of course long before mobile phones—where all communication was cut, because the phone lines went down at the same time as the power. We had the radio stations out of action. In the boarding school and in the day school we had students who did not know if their families were safe, who did not know what had happened on the farms to the stock and to their pets. We had people not knowing about their relatives and no way of finding out. People were just left confused about the extent of the tragedy unfolding and confused about whether they were impacted and to what extent.

Afterwards there were the tears, of course, and terrible sadness and trauma about the loss of life. The lesson from that was that many of the people who died had died trying to get away from the fires. They died in the open or in their cars trying to escape the radiant heat. What we have learned since then in bushfire management is that you either stay and defend your property or you get out early, but you do not get caught in the open. That is something that we all understand now. But in Hobart in 1967 we did not understand that. Bushfire understanding then, at a community level, was nothing like it is today.

There were some incredible stories of bravery. In Snug, the schoolchildren assembled in the hall and were singing as the fires were burning down the town. You had people escaping to the beaches—people in Kettering and in Margate watching the fish processing plant go up—and people not far from service stations wondering if there was going to be a mega explosion of the tanks to wipe out all within the area.

The tragedy was not only loss of life, loss of property and loss of a sense of place; incredible, irreplaceable treasures were lost. That is what people return to after knowing that families are safe and secure. Collections were lost, like that of Olegas Truchanas, one of Australia’s most renowned wilderness photographers. His was probably the most comprehensive collection of wilderness images of its time. That collection was lost in the 1967 bushfires.

Looking back on that period it is interesting that, of the 110 fires that were burning on 7 February 1967, 88 had been deliberately lit and were already burning prior to 7 February. In fact, the report prepared by the Solicitor-General of the day, DM Chambers, and the Master of the Supreme Court said that many of these fires were caused by escapes from incinerators, breakaways from rubbish dumps, arson or landowners burning off without permission from a fire warden or in defiance of a permit being refused.

Most of the destruction was caused because fires were either permitted to burn free or thought to be under control but were not out. The practice had grown up over the years of permitting fires in bush and scrub country to burn free so long as they were not menacing lives or property. In normal circumstances it was not considered economic or necessary to move necessary resources into the area to combat such fires. However, under the extreme conditions of the morning of 7 February most of the free-burning fires spread rapidly. Looking back on it now with the perspective of hindsight, the idea of people lighting incinerators, burning off and so on in extreme fire conditions is highly irresponsible. At that time it was part of the culture. As I indicated earlier, it was because people thought of fires as things that happened in the bush and in outer locations, if you like, and did not actually threaten large population centres.

The other thing that has changed, although in my view it has not changed enough, is the idea that if the bush is burning then it is not threatening any valuable property. Australians now recognise that the biodiversity in the bush is extremely valuable, and we think of wild places as valuable for their absolute integrity. When thinking about fires, I would like there to be more recognition that burning natural areas is a threat to property and a threat to our natural heritage.

When the fires were over and many of the students went home, both boarders and day scholars, the stories came back of trying to cope and of the incredible generosity of the community. Tasmanians faced with a large natural disaster or a disaster of any kind are incredibly generous, and at that time we were supported by the generosity of many people from the mainland. I would like to acknowledge that at this time. We were overwhelmed by people sending clothes and the necessities of life. People gave up their shacks and any other accommodation they might have had to house people in the interim while they rebuilt their properties.

I also want to acknowledge the fantastic efforts that community members and volunteers generally made, risking their own lives in many cases to help others. That certainly still occurs, but it occurs in a much more organised and informed way than it did then. People just did not know what to do. There was incredible confusion, virtually no organisation and no communication. In that circumstance, people were rushing back to help people, having no idea of the consequences or of how close they were coming to destruction and to what could have been a tragedy for them and their families. I would like to put on the record today the gratitude that I know all members of the Senate feel for the magnificent efforts of those volunteers who risk their lives to help others.

Out of the Tasmanian fires came the development of the Rural Fires Board, which eventually meshed with the professional fire service. In Tasmania we now have an excellent capacity to respond to fire, and we have a wonderful volunteer service as well as a professional service. But it has to be said that Australians love to live near the bush. We now have more people living in the interface between suburbs and the bush than ever before, whether in Tasmania, the Blue Mountains or wherever you look around the country. People have also embraced Australian native vegetation in a way that they did not previously. Where the backyard might have been just a lawn and a fence, now it is likely to have a considerable amount of native vegetation, with leaf litter and so on because of that. Therefore we have all come to an understanding that we have to take personal responsibility for the management of our own properties when it comes to fire.

That is a message that the fire services are trying to get out—that we all must get out there. We are listening to the stories of what happened to people in Hobart in 1967, in Canberra in 2003, in Sydney in 2001 and down on the Eyre Peninsula last year. We have to help the people who are prepared to help us in the event of fire. People have a responsibility to maintain the setback from native vegetation on their own properties. Local governments have a responsibility when issuing building permits to take fire risk into account. We need a situation where people look at their gardens, get rid of their rubbish, make sure they know how to defend their properties in the event of fire and work in a cooperative and collaborative manner. We know we are going to have greater fire risk into the future. We have been told by scientists that as a result of climate change we are going to have hotter days and more of them in the coming years. Therefore it behoves us all to start thinking very carefully about how we can assist the community to be better prepared—to make sure they have the equipment they need, the support they need and the information they need to be prepared to fight fires.

I congratulate the members of the Snug District Disaster Appeal Committee, who have been working consistently for a new memorial to be established in Tasmania, not only to remember the victims but to tell the stories of the 1967 fires. I particularly congratulate its chairperson, Mrs Norton, who wrote to me last year about the memorial and pointed out that they do have the money for the new memorial, which is going ahead. She said they thought it would be appropriate for the fire victims to be remembered in the federal parliament, as the 62 deaths represent the greatest number to perish as a result of a one-day natural disaster in Australian history. I am pleased that later this afternoon, as I have been led to understand, there will be support from all political parties in remembering the events in Tasmania of 7 February 1967 and in extending sympathy and condolences to the victims and to the general Tasmanian community for the trauma that occurred, as well as an expression of gratitude for all those who helped to do what they could on such a disastrous day in Tasmania.