Condolence Statement: Australian bushfires

Wednesday, 05 February 2020

Mr TAYLOR (Hume—Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction) (16:01):  By 19 December, fires had been working their way through my electorate for many days. They had got to Orangeville, near Camden. Whilst there hadn't been any major tragedies, there had been serious damage and we knew there was more that would happen.

By midday on 19 December I was in my electorate office, and I received a call from Camden. That call was to say that the fires around Bargo, Buxton and Balmoral had jumped, and that a major change in the wind was expected in the next couple of hours and the villages of Bargo, Buxton and Balmoral would be seriously threatened. I jumped in my car and quickly drove across the Razorback to Picton, to an evacuation centre to which people from those villages had been asked to move when the emergency warning went out. The area around the Picton Bowling Club was more like Noah's ark as people came in with their animals, and their favourite and most important things, to try to find refuge from fires that were absolutely raging. Emotions were high. Everyone there was going on an emotional rollercoaster as they tried to understand where their loved ones were, whether their houses had been burnt, whether their animals had been lost and whether the most cherished and important things in their lives had been destroyed.

On that afternoon of 19 December, I met Geoff and Jenny Webb, who live on Remembrance Drive, near Bargo, just across from the Wollondilly Anglican College and a few hundred metres up from the mine there. Geoff and Jenny were clearly in an area where the fires were at their absolute worst. I sat with them for a number of hours that afternoon as we tried to understand whether their house had been lost, whether their animals had been lost, where their loved ones were and, indeed, what was likely to transpire in the coming hours and night with the major change in the weather that had hit about midafternoon. Geoff and Jenny lost their house. They lost many, many years of memories. But their lives were saved and the lives of their loved ones were saved.

That emotional rollercoaster of the day we went through on 19 December was repeated in my electorate so many times after by so many people on so many days that followed, starting in mid-December. I want to pay tribute and offer my deepest condolences to all those affected by these terrible bushfires this 'black summer' across Australia, in particular those who have lost homes, lost property and, most tragically, lost loved ones.

I've seen firsthand the devastation that the bushfires have left behind—both the Green Wattle Creek fire south-west of Sydney, starting in the Nattai National Park on the north-western side of my electorate, which impacted the Bargo, Buxton and Balmoral area that I talked about a moment ago, and the Morton fire, which jumped out of the Shoalhaven River, on the south-eastern side of my electorate. Those two national parks form the corridor through which Hume runs.


To date, those fires have burnt over 300,000 hectares—300,000 hectares—impacting not just the towns of Balmoral, Buxton and Bargo, but also Wingello, Bundanoon, Tahmoor, Thirlmere and Couridjah and a number of other areas, destroying many hundreds of houses and other structures.

It is a very tough time for these small communities. I've visited the affected towns across my electorate, and I've heard many other tragic stories of loss. It's often the smallest things that mean the most: the family photos, often from decades back; the memorabilia; the much loved garden beds and trees; and, of course, the memories that are embedded in every house that we live in. But I've also heard people full of praise for the RFS volunteers and brigades around the region; people working together, giving up their time, donating what they can and all pitching in to help each other, which is what our communities do best. We saw this same pattern in my electorate and right across Australia.

I saw this firsthand at the evacuation centres in the Picton Bowling Club, which I mentioned a moment ago, and also at the Mittagong RSL. They truly were like Noah's ark, with families and pets taking shelter from the fires. And the managers of those two places, the Picton Bowling Club and the Mittagong RSL, couldn't have been more supportive. They were absolutely amazing, and we must acknowledge the work they did. The Aussie spirit, that great Aussie spirit, struck me again and again.

I'd like to acknowledge the incredible work of all the volunteers that have offered support at this real time of need. I saw this, with support from the Minister for Defence, when I got in touch with Major General Jake Ellwood. Just a few days after 19 December, when we saw the village of Balmoral devastated, I spoke to Major General Jake Ellwood and told him about the need for the community to actually deal with some very, very serious issues. This was right next door to where two people had tragically died, which I'll come back to in a moment, and we needed to take away the danger for the local community as they went in and tried to rebuild their buildings and their lives. Major General Jake Ellwood said to me, at about three o'clock in the afternoon, 'The ADF will be there at seven o'clock in the morning, Angus.' And they were. The presence of the ADF lifted the spirits of the entire community. Those reservists came in—the uniforms, the trucks—and the work they did helped to move dangerous trees, clear roads and assist more generally in the clean-up. I know this story is shared with so many communities, not just across my electorate but across the firegrounds across Australia.

We need to mourn what was lost, but we also need to celebrate what was saved. I spoke to many firefighters who felt the pain of the losses—often in their own communities. For many, the experience of failing to save a neighbour's house was incredibly painful, and will be impossible to erase from their memories. But those same people, those same volunteers in most cases, saved many houses and probably also lives. And so while some in the media had incorrectly declared that Balmoral was totally destroyed, the response of the community to that declaration was outrage. Indeed, the failure to acknowledge what was saved was the thing that upset the community most of all. Many houses were lost, but many more were saved, and the people of Balmoral wanted this to be acknowledged. Soon after the fires that went through nearby Bargo, I dropped in to see close friends Richard and Laurie Harrison, who had lost their sheds, which housed expensive equipment for their small business, which they provide to the local community.


The shed and the supplies had been lost, but their house had been saved. They relayed the story that a young local firefighter had dropped in to see them to apologise that he couldn't save their sheds and their contents. The irony of this is that only a few metres away those same firefighters had saved their house. Richard and Laurie were so incredibly grateful for what had been saved, because that was the most important thing for them. We must celebrate every day the work of these wonderful people and the incredible community resilience and generosity in the face of adversity which has touched us all.

I'd like to take this chance to put on record my deepest sympathies to the families of the 33 Australians who've tragically lost their lives this bushfire season. My heart goes out to the family and friends of those killed, including the volunteers who so bravely served their communities. Of course, I'd like to in particular remember the two outstanding Rural Fire Service volunteers who tragically lost their lives battling the fires in my electorate, the Green Wattle Creek fire, near Buxton. Their stories have touched us all. My deepest sympathies go out to their families, friends and fellow firefighters. I thank the Prime Minister for his earlier tribute. Geoffrey Keaton and Andrew O'Dwyer were two young fathers and volunteer firefighters from the Horsley Park brigade. Geoffrey had joined the brigade in 2006 and was the deputy captain, and Andrew had been a member since 2003. These fine young men were battling the fire just days before Christmas. They were taken from their families after a tree fell into the path of their fire tanker, causing it to roll off the road. The loss is a tragedy. My heart goes out to them. I thank them for the extraordinary work that they did. We must pay tribute to them, for as long as we live, in this region and across my electorate. Their contribution was absolutely enormous and their sacrifice was the greatest of all.

The rest of the brigade, whilst dealing with their own grief and loss, were back on the trucks continuing to protect the community from the bushfire only two days later. Our volunteer firefighters truly are Aussie heroes. Their bravery, commitment and strength have touched us all. We can never thank them enough for what they have done. I've had the opportunity to visit so many local brigades. I want to take a moment to thank each and every member of our local brigades for their service. To the teams at Appin, Bargo, Bungonia, Buxton, Balmoral, Bundanoon, Canyonleigh, Colo Vale, Exeter, Hill Top, Picton, Tahmoor, Thirlmere, Wingecarribee, Wingello, Wollondilly, Yerrinbool and many, many others: thank you for your service to the community. They were just the fire brigades from within my electorate. But, wherever I went, I would see them coming from across Sydney and across the state to serve our community.

I want to pay special tribute to Brendan O'Connor, the captain of the Balmoral brigade, for his leadership and for his contributions to ongoing discussions about mental health. He spent time with the Minister for Health discussing how we could, as a government, best serve and support our volunteer firefighters at such a tough time. I know the Minister for Health took on board, in the policy announcements we made, many of the comments that Brendan made to him and the input he provided. To Dave Stimson, of the Picton fire control centre; to John Klepzcarek, the local emergency operations controller at Mittagong; and to the Green Wattle Creek fire incident controller, Simon Davis: thank you. You guys went above and beyond 24/7 for weeks on end. Thank you for your work and the work of all your teams.

To my colleagues in this place: thank you for joining me in Hume to meet with locals and hear their stories. It was wonderful to have the Prime Minister and the New South Wales Premier support our community in Picton soon after the fire devastated much of our community. The minister for emergency services and AJ Colvin came to meet Dave Bruggeman, the owner of the Wingello general store, who very nearly lost his house and businesses. Many of the houses and businesses around him in Wingello were lost, but the lifeblood of the village, the Wingello general store—make sure you go there if you're ever passing through Wingello—was saved. For Wingello, that was an extraordinary achievement. Thank you to the minister and Andrew Colvin for coming to visit us at Wingello and helping to support the community as it gets back on its feet. The minister for the environment came to Thirlmere to thank the Sydney Metropolitan Wildlife Services volunteers for the work they've done. It's an extraordinary group there who double as members of the RFS and supporters of the local wildlife.


We got to spend time with local wombats and possums, and even managed to release some back into the bush while we were there—injured wildlife that people were picking up and looking after, particularly coming out of the Nattai and Morton national parks. And thank you to the councils. This is a tough time for councils, as it is for all levels of government, to get the engagement right and work with local communities. Thank you for the hard work that you have done and continue to do. That work is much appreciated.

There is much more that needs to be done. Support needs to continue to get to the right place as fast as possible. Time is of the essence in providing support to communities in situations of adversity. Houses and other buildings need to be rebuilt—better and quickly. Fences, farms and businesses need to be re-established. We've learnt from past fires and floods—in my own electorate we had the Picton floods only a few years ago—that recovery doesn't take days, weeks or months; it takes years. We'll need to stand shoulder to shoulder, for years to come, with our communities that have been affected.

Before I finish, I want to make a few comments about the future. The climate is changing and we have to do our bit to reduce emissions. But we also need to do far more to prevent fires and damage of the sort we have seen this summer. Fuel reduction must be a priority. Making sure we don't have fuel loads that can cause the sorts of fires that we have seen this summer must be a priority. Containment lines are absolutely crucial. There is much talk about how the windows for fuel reduction are getting shorter and more difficult. Well, with good containment lines we can do far more hazard reduction. That is the reality. It is crucial that we get those containment lines right. Planning laws have to recognise the fire risks in these regions, particularly as we approach national parks and public lands. Of course, the role of the ADF should be celebrated because it was extraordinary. We need to think systematically and carefully about how in the future those national powers of intervention, including the application of those wonderful ADF resources, comes to bear. And, of course, the overall management of our national parks and public lands is a crucial issue to discuss as the dust settles on a fire season which is not yet over, which still has some time to go.

I will end by once again paying tribute to our volunteer and paid firefighters, emergency services, ADF and so many others who have contributed to responding to these fires. We can never know how many houses, lives and properties have been saved, but we can know that the contribution of those people was absolutely enormous. Thank you for your service and your sacrifice.