Wednesday, 11 September 2019
Statements by Senators
I rise to speak about the bushfire emergency that is currently underway in substantial parts of Queensland. Warm temperatures, low humidity and little to no rain during the winter months meant that there was an unpredictable situation ready to combust when wind came over the last week. The fires quickly became volatile and unpredictable. We mightn't be able to control those aspects of the weather, but what we have control over in those circumstances is how we respond to and manage those conditions.
I'm so proud to speak now about the excellent work of the Queensland Rural Fire Service volunteers. The Queensland Rural Fire Service has 36,000 volunteers who are spread across 93 per cent of our state. Given that Queensland is huge and, in places, sparsely populated, this is an achievement that is quite extraordinary. The training these volunteers undertake is constant, and it complements the work they do every bushfire season. They learn from their interstate counterparts and they lend a hand when there is trouble interstate. The Queensland Rural Fire Service indicated that, as of this morning, there were 58 sites across Queensland with bushfire activity and one remaining bushfire at Peregian Beach on the Sunshine Coast. This is in stark contrast to the peak of the fire dangers over the weekend, when residents in the Cairns hinterland, Stanthorpe and Ballandean were all on high alert and evacuated from their homes.
I want to tell the story of Julie Barnes, one of many residents affected by these circumstances. She is a resident of a place called The Summit, just north of Stanthorpe. On Friday night, at 11.45 pm, Julie was woken by a police officer pounding on her door, telling her she needed to leave the area. The wind gusts were up to 90 kilometres an hour, and it made the bushfires in the region so volatile that it wasn't able to be predicted how far they would go and in which direction. Julie said: 'It was so windy, so unpredictable. The sparks were being blown quite a distance ahead of the fire, and the firies didn't know what was going to happen. It was better for us to get out of the way.' The fire had jumped the New England Highway and the road had been closed to traffic. The power had gone out at midday; for the residents who use tank water, that meant they had no water either. Julie and other residents drove to Dalveen, where there was a functioning bathroom—an important resource; other people were also parked there for that reason. They stayed there for an hour until they had to move on to Warwick.
Fortunately, the next morning the fire was downgraded and Julie was able to go home. She still had no power and, therefore, no water. She spent the day in Stanthorpe and stayed that night at a motel called The Vines. The owners of The Vines didn't charge anyone who had been affected by the fires—in fact, no Stanthorpe motel did. It is the kind of generosity of spirit that I see so often in regional Queensland. When Julie returned home on Sunday morning, the power was back on. The Energex linesmen were doing a great job in trying conditions, with high winds continuing and fire-damaged poles.
Since returning home on Monday, Julie and the residents of The Summit have been on a 'watch and act' alert in case the fire regenerates and again poses a risk. She has nothing but praise for the police and community services who have helped out. But she has even higher praise for the Queensland Rural Fire Service volunteers who have saved so much property. She spoke of a house and shed on 45 acres of bushland at Applethorpe. She said, 'Quite literally, there was nothing left but the house and the shed'—in the circumstances, no small accomplishment. As tragic as it is to lose 16 properties, including the historic Binna Burra Lodge, at least it is only 16 properties.
Thankfully, we haven't yet suffered loss of life in Queensland. In New South Wales a rural firefighter is stable after receiving burns to his hands and face. He has a long recovery ahead of him, but, thankfully, he has his life. Rural firefighters put their lives on the line for their neighbours. Often their own homes are in peril when they go off with their crews to help in other areas. Ben Naday is a member of the Tallebudgera Valley Rural Fire Brigade in the Gold Coast hinterland. He joined because he wanted to contribute something meaningful to his local area. Jon Krause, who is the LNP member for Scenic Rim, reports on the work of the Queensland Rural Fire Service in this area, starting in his usual blunt way with the statement: 'They've been at it for six days straight.' On Thursday last week they were called in to Binna Burra and they've been on the ground since then, fighting the bushfires which have been taking swathes of bushland and which destroyed the Binna Burra Lodge. Some 50 trucks were deployed to this area, and hundreds of local firefighters have used their expertise to minimise the damage—the wind has been too strong and the fires too unpredictable for them to have a perfect record. The planes doing the water-bombing have been leaving from Boonah Airfield, and volunteers have done whatever they can to support the pilots and crews there.
Southern Queensland will have a couple of days reprieve from the strong winds which have been blasting from the west since last Wednesday. The 5,000 residents of Peregian Beach evacuated overnight have been allowed to return home, and it is to the credit of the Queensland Rural Fire Service that only one house in that area was lost—one important house, but at least it's only one. The Bureau of Meteorology predicts the strong westerly winds to return on Friday and we will have another weekend, I expect, of Watch and Act alerts. We're not out of the woods yet, but my thoughts and my prayers are with those who have suffered loss. I thank and encourage the volunteers and community groups who are helping affected Queenslanders to, little by little, put back the pieces. It's hard to be here, knowing how much hardship you are all enduring at home.