COMMEMORATION OF BLACK SATURDAY BUSHFIRES

I rise to support this motion and express my condolences to those who lost loved ones and who were adversely affected by the dreadful Black Saturday fires and to also pay tribute to all emergency service personnel and the volunteers who assisted so many.

There is nothing more frightening than the smell and sight of smoke from out-of-control fires. My region of Western Victoria has a history of suffering significantly from bushfires, from the Black Thursday fires of 1851, which brought devastation to the communities of Portland and Wimmera; to the 1943–44 fires, in which my grandfather attempted to shelter from the blaze in a culvert on his farm in Darlington but died three weeks later from his burns—I have no doubt that our experience in treating burns in Australia means we lead the world in delivering better outcomes now than were possible for my grandfather—and there were 50 other victims lost across the state in those fires; to the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983, which saw the deeply saddening deaths of not only 47 residents in rural communities but 14 firefighters also; and to the recent St Patrick’s Day 2018 fires, which raged across farming land near where I live. Fortunately on that occasion there was no loss of life, but our area lost 4000 head of livestock, 24 houses and 63 sheds, with 250 properties affected.

I was a shire councillor in the area at the time, and it was awe-inspiring to see how shire workers and the community rallied at an instant in the middle of the night to support those in desperate need. BlazeAid, the volunteer fence-building charity, have only recently left the area after restoring thousands of kilometres of fencing for farmers who had no ability to house their stock without a fence. A special tribute was paid to BlazeAid in our recent shire Australia Day awards.

It is undeniable that bushfires are an unfortunate part of our natural environment, but this uncomfortable reality is mitigated by the existence of Victoria’s greatest volunteer agency, the Country Fire Authority, along with other volunteer organisations like the SES; the Red Cross; St Vincent de Paul; the Country Women’s Association; churches; hay, fodder and fencing providers; and many others, including op shop volunteers, who come together in those emergencies and do so much.

Last Saturday I was honoured to join the Governor of Victoria, Her Excellency Linda Dessau, AC, at two events to recognise the 10-year anniversary of the 2009 bushfires. Her Excellency eloquently referred to the events, but most particularly to the volunteers from so many organisations who risked their own lives and gave up so much to support those in such desperate need. We were in Hamilton and Coleraine for these events, and the recovery of mind, soul and property still continues today. I met Anthony Watt, who left his farm and wife to move to a vantage point to oversee the firefighting operation. He said he did not think twice about the risk of leaving his own home to try to save others; that is what you do. Anthony is typical of our amazing CFA volunteers, who often return to their properties to find devastation has struck them also. Bill Smith was incident controller of the 2009 Coleraine bushfires and reflected on changes to the CFA in the last 10 years. While Coleraine has received a new fire station and equipment, the number of volunteers involved in the brigade has diminished substantially.

The CFA is a community-based organisation, therefore reliant on volunteers, and it is sad that their numbers are dwindling. All I could do on that Black Saturday was to make sure that our thousands of farm animals had water, that our dogs and horses were safe and that the sprinkler kept the thousands of birds hydrated under a huge tree. Our animals and I were incredibly fortunate. Others were not. I pay tribute to all those who fought the fires, the service volunteers who comforted the grieving and cared for the vulnerable, and who continue to do so today.

6 February 2019