Black Summer Bushfires

11 February 2020

Mr STEPHEN JONES (Whitlam) (17:34): Over this summer, the 'black summer', we've faced bushfires on a scale never seen before. On the South Coast, it's been known as the 'forever fire'. It's estimated that more than 17 million hectares have burnt across the nation. More than 33 people, tragically, have died. In New South Wales, over 2,400 houses have been destroyed. It's estimated that one billion animals have perished, with many more species expected to be now endangered after habitat loss. The fact is: it's not yet over. We welcome the rains; the rains have put out a lot of the fires in my area. But it's not yet over—the fires are still burning down the far South Coast.

Locally, Deputy Captain Geoff Keaton, 32, and firefighter Andrew O'Dwyer, 36, died when their truck rolled after a tree fell onto the cabin of the truck that they were driving, near Buxton. They'd fought the Green Wattle Creek blaze. It took two months to contain. These two men were not alone, sadly. They were joined by seven other firefighters on other firegrounds who made the ultimate sacrifice while protecting people's lives and people's homes. I pay my respects and offer my condolences to their families and colleagues, some of whom I've met, and to all of those men and women who lost their lives over this fire season.

To our firefighters of both Fire and Rescue New South Wales and our volunteer brigade, the Rural Fire Service, together with all of those emergency responders from the ambulance, the police, the SES, the Australian Defence Force, local hospital staff and more—all the volunteer organisations, the Red Cross and St Vincent de Paul: you're a real credit to our nation and our community. To you I say: you can be very proud of what you've done. You can be very proud of what you continue to do. And you have the deepest thanks from our entire community.

I do want to champion and give special thanks to our local RFS volunteers—firstly, to the Southern Highlands district crew. They've been on fire operations since August 2019. They've been deployed across New South Wales, to towns such as Glen Innes, Tenterfield, Drake, Grafton, Coffs Harbour and Casino. They've been here in Canberra, and over in Wauchope, Hawkesbury and Braidwood. They've also been deployed to the Gold Coast hinterland. Since the end of October, crews have worked in the Green Wattle Creek fire, protecting the local towns of Warragamba, Silverdale, Oakdale, The Oaks, Orangeville, Werombi, Lakesland, Thirlmere, Coridjah, Buxton, Balmoral, Hill Top, Tahmoor, Bargo, Yanderra, Yerrinbool, Mount Jellore, High Range, Wombeyan and Taralga. We rattle the names off, but each and every one of those was an incident where the fires crews' lives were at stake and they were fighting to save local communities and to try to halt the rapid spread of these terrible fires.

Since the first week of January, when the Currowan fires breached the Shoalhaven River just south of us, they have been working on the Morton fire, protecting Meryla, Bundanoon, Penrose, Wingello and Tallong. In some places they couldn't prevent the loss of property and wildlife. In other places, they have been successful. This particular district has over 1,000 volunteer members. I've met with many of them. I can say: at this end of the fire season, they're well and truly buggered.

Down on the coast where I live, in the Illawarra district, the RFS has been in the field since September. Crews from the Illawarra have deployed over 145 strike teams, which are fire trucks with four to five firefighters each. The district has around 3,000 volunteers in total. They started the fire season off in Queensland and in Northern New South Wales, before moving to the Gospers Mountain blaze and the Hawkesbury, then the Green Wattle Creek and the Morton blazes in the highlands, then the Currowan fire down the coast, before moving on to where they were last week, in Queanbeyan and in Canberra and on the far South Coast.

The sacrifice made and the risks that these men and women and their families have faced are profound, and the toll on our communities if they had not been fighting for us is unimaginable. Towns would have been lost. Literally thousands of homes and many tens of thousands of lives have been saved because of their efforts to contain, control and extinguish these fires. Our community thanks you because you are the rarest of things—unassuming heroes.

During the recent blazes, the Dunmore RFS made headlines when a fire truck was overrun by wildfire in just three minutes in Tomerong in early January—a flashover. I spoke to two of the crew who were involved in that after the incident. They were still visibly shaken by what they'd experienced. They activated their cabin sprays and took defensive measures. Luckily, they all survived and within 10 minutes—remarkably—they were out there defending the property that they'd gone down that track to defend. This is the sort of heroism that we're all in awe of.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 17:41 to 17 : 52

Mr STEPHEN JONES (Whitlam) (18:21): I seek leave to continue my contribution to this debate.

Leave granted.

Mr STEPHEN JONES: I spoke earlier about the Dunmore RFS crew, who made headlines when their firetruck was overrun by wildfire within just three minutes, in Tomerang in early January—a flash-over, as it's described. I described how they activated their cabin sprays and took defensive measures, and they survived. Within 10 minutes of that incident, they were out defending the house that they'd gone down that track to look after. It's this kind of heroism that we are all in awe of.

It's why the kids of Fig Tree holiday care gave a hero's welcome to the RFS volunteers. It's why the Wollongong City Council held a parade on Australia Day in honour of the emergency responders. It's why the Mittagong RFS received anonymous letters of thanks from children at a school in Sydney. Another local crew, from Dapto, were even photographed at the Green Wattle Creek blaze, and that photograph was displayed on the Opera House. Our communities' deep-felt thanks cannot be overstated.

Inevitably, the debate on climate change has been enlivened. But the debate on whether climate change has been a contributor to and a cause of these fires kind of misses the point in some respects. It's undeniable that climate change has been a contributor to these fires. It's undeniable that climate change has been a contributor to the drought, although some do try to deny it. It's undeniable that climate change has been a contributor to the prolonged fire season, restricting the capacity to manage forests, to do hazard reduction and to do controlled burns. It's undeniable that the summer of 2019-20 was the point at which we stopped talking about climate change in the future tense and started talking about it as something that is happening now. The point is that, if we're going to preserve our way of life, we have to change the way we do things. If we don't act, 'forever fires' will be the new normal, and they should not be forever. The urgency of this work does not come at the cost of us thanking, as we are today, those people and groups who have given so much to keep us safe during these blazes.

I want to take this opportunity to thank another group as well. We don't often think of them as lifesavers, but they have been: our local broadcasters. In the Illawarra, the South Coast and the Southern Highlands, we had WIN News Illawarra, the South Coast Register, the Illawarra Mercury, Southern Highland News, 9News Wollongong, 2ST, i98 FM, Wave FM and Power FM all playing a role in informing, reassuring and alerting locals, and telling our stories. I have no doubt that people are alive today because of the information that was being broadcast through these networks. They truly played a critical role, so I take this opportunity to thank them as well.

I want to particularly thank ABC Illawarra and ABC South East. The men and women there have literally kept people alive and safe with up-to-the-minute emergency broadcasts. Your work has been immense and has been of great value to the entire community. It's given us a critical understanding of how we respond to this emergency. Together our local media outlets have all managed to humanise the most brutal disaster we've ever experienced. You made us cry, you made us laugh sometimes, you've kept us safe, and we thank you.

I know the RFS have successfully partnered with local high schools in my area, running a cadets program to ensure that young people are coming up through the ranks of the RFS. This has happened at Dapto High School and Bowral High School, and it's a credit to those teachers who are engaging, to the volunteer RFS and, of course, to those young cadets who are giving all of their efforts.

Ruby and Charlotte Cruden-Taylor in Dapto, local children, held a bake sale and were inundated with support, raising more than $1,000 in three hours. The Illawarra Mercury reported that one customer paid 200 bucks for a doughnut because the funds were going directly to bushfire relief. Local businesses—and I'm thinking of my mate at the Robertson butcher and of the Robertson Hotel, the Robertson Bowling Club and Moonacres Kitchen—are feeding the ADF and emergency responders out of their own pockets, giving up their family income in support of our community and our emergency services. There are countless other examples across the district. Alexander's Cafe mustered donations, and the list goes on. I don't have time to list them all.

A special shout-out to the men and women at the Moss Vale Services Club and the Mittagong RSL who helped operate their facilities as evacuation centres in the Morton and Green Wattle fires. Similarly, the Albion Park and Moss Vale showgrounds became evacuation centres for large animals. The Albion Park Show Society properly prioritised their work as an evacuation centre over hosting the 2020 show, which has been cancelled.

The New South Wales Business Chamber and their Illawarra Business Chamber chapter have been doing a great job in running their campaign Backing the Bush, encouraging local businesses to pledge to hold meetings in bushfire affected areas. So far companies that have signed the pledge include BlueScope, WIN Corporation, IMB Bank, Peoplecare and the University of Wollongong. Local manufacturer and major employer BlueScope has donated a million dollars to the Red Cross. And how could I leave out the Red Cross and St Vincent de Paul for the great job they have done for the district?

Dapto local Leanne Shackell delivered back-to-school backpacks to 165 Batemans Bay children. She received collections organised through Hayes Park Public School parents, UoW staff, local businesses and Dapto locals who heard about it on Facebook.

Wombat Care Bundanoon have been caring for wombats across the highlands. Wombats are well-known for willingly sharing their burrows with their natural enemies, like snakes, during bushfires. There's some speculation on whether they do that or they just head downstairs, but it's a great thing and let the myth survive! I think of this as a metaphor for how so many other Australians have acted, sharing their safe places with others in danger.

I want to give a shout-out to Raptor Care and Conservation at Fitzroy Falls. They've also been playing a role with Australia's magnificent birds of prey. The Dingo Sanctuary at Bargo was repaired by dozens of inmates from the Illawarra Reintegration Centre. Many hundreds of Shoalhaven and Southern Highlands residents sought shelter with family and friends in the Illawarra over the bushfires. Spare rooms and couches were more than just a place to stay; they became the frontline on the home front—a place of refuge for those fleeing the fire, a gesture of solidarity and citizenship for those who could.

I also want to give a shout-out—and I am nearing the end here—in the Southern Highlands to John Waters and friends, who organised the fire aid concert. It was a terrific evening. It was done at the drop of a hat, very shortly. We had thousands of people there. We had about 6,000 people by my count. For my generation, it was great to see Daryl Braithwaite, Leo Sayer and John Paul Young. My kids were not so impressed, but I thought it was a great afternoon out there at Bong Bong Picnic Racecourse!

Over at Berrima, my good mate Richard Lane organised the Wingecarribee Vocal Muster to perform on Australia Day, again recognising and fundraising for the RFS. On the coast, Football For Firies was held—a match between the Wollongong Wolves and Albion Park City—to raise money for the Albion Park RFS. We've had the Illawarra Codes Combined—the Hawks, the Dragons and the Wolves—golf day, raising money for the Salvos and WIRES.

I want to give a special shout-out to my mate the member for Gilmore, Fiona Phillips. She spent her wedding anniversary on the front line, while her husband was in New Zealand on the family holiday that she never got to. She's done a great job. I wind up by saying that there are so many more that I could thank, but, in the time that I have available, from my heart and on behalf of the people of Whitlam, the Illawarra and the South Coast, thanks for all the support we've got. We got through it.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Dr Gillespie ): It being 6.30 pm, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 192(b). The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.