Bushfires

It is a pleasure to follow the good member for Port Macquarie’s wonderful contribution to this motion of condolence and to hear her talk about her community with such passion, pride and humility, as she always does. I too support the motion that recognises the bushfire season of 2019-20, albeit that the season is most certainly not over just yet. Most importantly, at the outset of my contribution I wish to name and honour the RFS volunteers who tragically died in this particular fire season: Geoffrey Keaton, Andrew O’Dwyer and Samuel McPaul. I also acknowledge and recognise our friends from the United States who were here to help and support us during the fire season and who also tragically died during their efforts to support and protect our communities. I speak of Ian McBeth, Paul Hudson and Rick DeMorgan Jr.

The reality is that New South Wales has had an unprecedented fire season. A number of political commentators have tried to dress it up as something other than that but I repeat: It is an unprecedented fire season. As members of Parliament, on Tuesday afternoon we had the opportunity to hear directly from a number of emergency services organisations. They had absolutely no hesitation in referring to the bushfire season as an unprecedented fire season. We discussed the statistics, facts and figures to establish why that is the case. It is irrefutable to refer to the bushfire season we have just experienced as unprecedented.

With regard to specifics, statistics and details, two contributions to the motion—one by the Leader of the Opposition and one by the Premier—perfectly, succinctly and immediately outlined exactly where this State is placed as a result of the bushfire season. I encourage people who read my speech or who are interested in the broader range of contributions to ensure they do not pass up the opportunity to read those two speeches. In the same vein I refer people to some other contributions that paint the picture of the bushfire experiences from the perspective of a local member of Parliament. I refer to the speech made by the member for Prospect, Hugh McDermott, who was out there on the fire front. He described in fantastic and vivid detail for the benefit of all members of this House what it is like to put on the orange suit of the RFS and to stand in front of a fire that is coming towards you. His account certainly made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

The wonderful member for Bega and the wonderful member for Blue Mountains spoke about their personal experiences during the bushfire season that included their near-death experiences or the near-death experiences of family members. It is through the personal experiences conveyed in this House by the member for Port Macquarie and other members that we better understand what it is like to live through such an experience. Because Australia is the land of droughts, floods and fires, the reality is that people go through those experiences at different times. The impacts are significant, emotional, challenging and heartbreaking and, as other members have said, they bring out the best in us. Those experiences bring out the greatness of our wonderful human spirit. In that context I acknowledge and recognise the wonderful community work in the Cessnock electorate, which I have the great pleasure to represent.

Late in December extreme fire events came through the Wollombi and Laguna villages in the south‑west of my electorate. The Cessnock electorate is fortunate to have the great beauty of being surrounded and full of State forests and national parks. The reality is that there is not a summer season when my electorate does not have significant fire events, but previous fires were nothing like the fires that we had this year. Relative to other towns and villages in my electorate, the Wollombi and Laguna villages are quite remote and consequently telecommunications, mobile phones, CB radios and handsets, et cetera, do not operate because of the hills, valleys and nature of the topography. A number of small communities in my electorate are completely isolated and are without telecommunication facilities. For the reason that the RFS does not have connectivity with the command centre and the base there, RFS members simply are not allowed to go there.

In terms of the remoteness of some of those communities, frankly we are lucky that lives were not lost, although property was. Those villages were settled 60,000 years ago by our Indigenous people. Mount Yengo is one of the most significant Indigenous places on the east coast. Some of our local Aboriginal communities refer to Mount Yengo as the east coast Uluru, so that gives members a sense of how important it is. When the early white settlers arrived here and they tried to head north out of Sydney they could not get over the Hawkesbury so, of course, they had to go around it.

When they came around the Hawkesbury, they came into the bottom of the Wollombi-Laguna Valley where the very early settlements were based. Fortunately, at the time, the farmers settled down on the flat land beside the river because that was how they would go about their farming, and raising a crop, sheep and cattle. Fortunately, when this fire event went through and tore through the mountain ranges, and the higher parts of the hills and mountains, the greater part of the community and the population were down on the flats. That was where our courageous RFS volunteers and community members and property owners met the fire. Because it was on the downhill run—or on the flats and the grasses—they were able to save the great majority of buildings, property and people.

Our fire went through in a period of about 48 hours. It was extreme and it lingered for some months after that, but it lingered over in the back hills and the back valleys. It is almost impossible territory for our firefighters to access in any shape or form to fight those fronts, so it still burns away today. But the worst of it and the closest of it—with regard to our towns and villages—has come and it has passed. We had communities up in Paynes Crossing that were also spared by the RFS and again down on the flats—having cleared the land around the farmhouses, the residential properties and tourist facilities—we were able to defeat those fires.

Further west in the electorate of Cessnock, we have Putty. The Putty Road runs from Sydney at the southern end up to Singleton at the northern end. One gentleman left his house at Putty to come down to Sydney for a doctor’s appointment. Unfortunately, when he tried to get back he could not get through because the road had been blocked by the fire and emergency services because the fire was going through that village. We took a number of phone calls from that gentleman over the following week to 10 days. His experience was terrible. He had animals at his property. He was a single man. He had CCTV cameras set up, but he simply could not get in.

Over the ensuing days, sadly, he watched the demise of his animals through CCTV on his mobile phone because they did not have food and water. His property survived, but the roads in and out were impassable. His story is just one of those that demonstrates how the electorate office of an MP supports its communities during these times. Certainly when the fires were going through Wollombi and Laguna the electorate office took many calls from people in significant distress, still in their homes and properties at Wollombi and Laguna, watching the fire come towards them using the wonderful app called Fires Near Me. Heaven only knows what we did before that. They did not know what was happening and the great concern was—going back to the topography and geography—they were tucked around a corner of a valley or they were down a dirt road somewhere and their concern was that there were no emergency services responding to their desperate calls and pleas.

When I made inquiries of the Minister’s office—and a shout out to Don Bodnar in the office who did a wonderful job keeping us up to date—I was told there were 96 trucks on the ground and a couple of aircrew fighting the fires. But that was the nature of the fire. I had people ringing me in great distress, telling me this was the last phone call they were ever going to make and that I was not doing enough as the local MP to get them the support services they needed. But the reality was we had every man and woman in an orange suit that was available out there fighting the fires. They might not have been at the bottom of that particular driveway, but they were certainly at the bottom of driveways somewhere else in that area. They were quite distressing phone calls for an MP’s office to take. I applaud and recognise my wonderful electorate office staff who took the great brunt of those particular phone calls. I say “brunt” because I could see and hear in the voices of my staff members how distressing those phone calls had been; I had taken a number of those phone calls myself. Those two days in the electorate office were really tough.

That brings me to the point about the leadership role we have as MPs. While I am sure we all felt that we wanted to stay completely out of the way of the work of the RFS, we also needed the information. The member for Port Macquarie mentioned going to one of her RFS stations and trying to stay out of the way, but needing that information so that she could share it with the community through her Facebook page and the phone calls she took. I apologise on behalf of us all if any MPs got in the way of our RFS brigades going about their work. However, we were really just trying to help our communities with the communication, recognising that RFS firefighters were the experts and would do the right thing. We just needed a little bit of information so that we could support your cause and do the little that we could.

I went to one of my RFS stations after the worst of it had been through. The crew members were working on their trucks and making some small repairs. They explained to me that they need to do that on a regular basis and that there were some other bits and pieces they were currently raising money for—even just the water, which I am sure we have all heard about—so that they have that as they go about their business during the normal course of the year. These are all great things for us as MPs to hear and learn about so that we can better understand the nature of the volunteerism. It is not just about the firefighting but also about raising money as they have always done—that is not a criticism of the government of the day; it is historically what the RFS brigades have had to do.

I think that this particular fire season causes us all to pause and consider whether we might need to rethink the funding for our Rural Fire Service going forward. I was watchingQ+A on Monday night, which featured a climate change expert. One of the questions that came from the young people in the audience was, “Is this the new norm?” To paraphrase, the response was essentially, “No, this might not be the new norm.” I thought, oh good, we are not going to see more of this. He went on to say, “This could just be the start of where it ends up.” This could be mild compared to what might be the future as the climate changes.

When you think about the season we have had, that is extremely sobering. As members of this Parliament, as the 93 elected representatives from all across the State with all our political colours and stripes, we have to deal with that going forward. I think the sentiment that has been expressed in this Chamber this week indicates that all members are willing to have that conversation in a very mature and respectful way. We will make sure that we do what we need to do in here to make sure that our communities are kept safe and, in particular, that our volunteers are recognised.

Finally, I recognise the work of the Premier, the emergency services Minister and the elected leaders in our various communities who have done incredibly well during this difficult time. I also commend the work of RFS leader Shane Fitzsimmons and his team out there. As described by the member for Port Macquarie, you saw them in front of the TV camera and thought, well, while ever they are in charge I feel just a bit safer. That sort of presence and demeanour is quite a quality to have. It has been wonderful to see the support for these people from the community at large. It has been wonderful to watch everyone chip in and lend a hand—making donations, making sandwiches, getting on the end of a pair of tongs, going to the local supermarket to get a pallet of water and making sure it gets out to the fireys.

In particular, during that severe 48-hour period I had fire trucks from all over the State in my electorate. I could not pronounce some of the names on the sides of the trucks, but I knew they had left their families to come to support the people of the community at that moment—just as our American, Canadian and New Zealand friends had come to help and support us at that time. Those actions are the best of what makes us human. We just have to help those who need it. I mean that on every single front; not just the fire front. I am talking about the aid that we send after tsunamis or earthquakes. I recently went on a journey around the South Pacific and I saw schools that were built with funding and support from Australia, Japan, China and the United States.

The best thing about humans is that we support others when they need our help. We have seen that intensely over the past three months in New South Wales and Australia. Hopefully that will continue over the coming decades where and when it is needed, and in the volume and with the compassion that is needed. When I wake up in the morning and look at my children it is those acts of support that make me proud to be alive on this earth at this time and in this place. I am proud that my children will see the best of us. I commend the motion to the House.