Mr NORTHE (Morwell) (14:27): Thank you for the opportunity to speak on the condolence motion before the house today. I do so to solemnly and respectfully reflect upon the devastation and horror of the bushfires which ravaged so many communities across Victoria in the summer of 2009. I also commend all members of the house who have spoken and who will speak on this condolence motion. It is pretty confronting what the member for Frankston has just articulated to the house. I guess each member of Parliament and each member of the community is impacted in different ways and has different experiences.
I rise to pay my respects to the 173 souls who were lost to us in these traumatic events. When one actually reflects upon the number of Victorians who passed away on that day, it is just so awful to even contemplate. After all, these people were sons, daughters, mums, dads, grandparents, brothers, sisters, children, adults and seniors. These fires did not discriminate about who they would take. There were countless people injured and so many homes and dreams destroyed. Beyond the fatalities and the immediate trauma the long-term impact of grief consumed individuals, families and businesses over the ensuing years. So many have suffered financial loss, relationship breakdown, suicide and significant mental health issues. Unfortunately the prophetic words of then Premier John Brumby would come to fruition. He said that 7 February 2009 would be for Victoria the ‘worst day in our history’. I do not think anyone could ever contest the accuracy of such a statement. Indeed the day of the Black Saturday bushfires was one of those rare days in our history when most Victorians can recall where they were, what they were doing and who they were with. It is a scenario that is likely to stay with many for the rest of their lives, including survivors, helpers and witnesses. I know the memory is still well and truly etched in my mind. As the smoke started to rise south of the township of Churchill my heart sank contemplating the extent of these fires and the impact they might have on innocent people and families.
January 2009 was hot and windy, and many of our regional areas were bone-dry. The month rounded off with a week of extreme dry heat and winds, creating tinderbox conditions across the state that the CFA warned us would create a situation of extremely high risk of fire events. However, for the electorate of Morwell the events of Saturday, 7 February 2009, were preceded by a week of devastation with the Delburn complex of fires—fires we should also not forget. These fires, like the Black Saturday fires in my community the very next week, were deliberately lit—a fact that even now I just cannot come close to understanding. Arson and looting, in my view, are two of the most abhorrent and vile crimes of callousness and cowardice, and unfortunately we experienced both during this event. The Delburn complex of fires was a cluster of fire incidents around 20 kilometres south-west of Morwell. Those fires combined to threaten and terrorise the good people of Mirboo North, Boolarra, Yinnar and Churchill from 28 January to 3 February.
On 30 January these fires increased in their activity and grew in size from 2100 hectares to 5750 hectares. To understand the dangerous conditions, a fire tanker became trapped by fallen trees and powerlines, and its CFA crew were forced to shelter, terrified, as the fire burnt over them . It was miraculous that no loss of life occurred on that day, which was mainly attributable to the incredible work of emergency services personnel.
Community fire meetings had been held in the morning, and 1000 people attended the meetings across various local locations. Following the Boolarra meeting nearly 300 people registered at the Churchill refuge centre. At that meeting the community completely understood the danger they faced, and this was due in no small part to Group Officer Lou Sigmund’s efforts. He had been fighting fires on the ground and was a group officer for the Morwell CFA as well as a former captain of the Boolarra CFA. Lou addressed the meeting and gave the order for a siren to be sounded in the township of Boolarra. He copped a fair bit of flak for doing so, but I might add that his actions encouraged residents to leave early, and this undoubtedly saved many lives, because as a result of a further wind change the fires broke control lines in the early afternoon and 44 homes and countless animals and infrastructure were lost.
Before being declared contained on 3 February the Delburn complex of fires destroyed 6500 hectares, with a fire perimeter in excess of 70 kilometres. It was thanks to the heroic actions of the local CFA crews and emergency services personnel on the ground and in the air that these fires were not only contained but managed in such a way that they did not extensively flare up over the next few days and when all hell broke loose on the day we now know as Black Saturday.
Hell is a very apt description. Victorians who experienced Black Saturday recall it as being dark, terrifying and hellishly hot, the thick black air stinging your eyes, nose and throat. In the Morwell electorate, like in all other regions of the state we suffered an increase in fire activity, but the big one —the Glendonald, Central Gippsland or Churchill fire, as it was eventually known—began around 1:30 in the afternoon when smoke was reported coming from a pine plantation at Bennetts Creek, south of Churchill. By the time the local Churchill brigade arrived at the scene, just 3 kilometres away, the fire, which was fuelled by the characteristic intensely difficult conditions of that day, was burning along Jelleffs Outlet Road. Within only 15 minutes it spread, threatening a number of neighbouring towns, including Hazelwood South, Jeeralang and Budgeree East. By late afternoon the fire was approaching Yarram and Woodside, and following a catastrophic wind change early in the evening it swung around and bore down on many of our local communities, including Hazelwood North, Hazelwood South, Koornalla, Traralgon South, Callignee, Callignee South, Callignee North, Jeeralang, Jeeralang North, Devon, Yarram and Carrajung South and then on to Won Wron state forest.
During the course of the fire three CFA tankers were involved in burn-overs, where the crews had to shelter in vehicles as the fire burnt over them. As people left the fire zones to escape these horrendous fires, our courageous CFA personnel were entering these apocalyptic areas in an endeavour to save lives and assets—what bravery. The fires left a trail of devastation, despair and loss in their wake, and these communities are still recovering from and may always be recovering from the fires.
In the Morwell electorate, on one day—11 precious lives, countless injured, 247 homes, cherished memories razed, 26 000 hectares burnt, towns completely destroyed, wildlife, pets, animals, infrastructure, all gone. On Black Saturday by 4.00 in the afternoon, the streetlights had come on, the sirens rang out in the air, frantic phone calls were made to loved ones and neighbours and a blanket of fear spread out over the community as we watched the horror unfurling in our own backyard. It might have been the most destructive day but the threat of fire continued to terrorise that community well beyond that date. The fire was eventually declared contained on 19 February.
During its reign of terror Black Saturday took the lives of 11 local beloved members of our community. The family and friends of these people will forever bear the burden of the loss and this anniversary must be so painful for them. I wish to again place on the record my deepest condolences to this house on behalf of the loved ones of all these victims of the Black Saturday bushfires, including those in my electorate: Fred Frendo, Scott Frendo, Annette Leatham, Martin Schultz, Colin Gibson, David Gibson, Alan Jacobs, Miros Jacobs, Luke Jacobs, Nathan Charles and Trudy Martin. I have become close to many of these bereaved families, am constantly inspired by their courage and strength and cherish their friendship. Despite this insurmountable and overwhelming loss and that of the state, I believe that anyone who witnessed the actions of emergency services, community groups and volunteers on Black Saturday would describe them as heroes. I rise to express my awe and wonder at the resilience, the selflessness and the sheer determination of the people of Victoria and their ability to recover and rebuild from the catastrophic week we experienced just 10 short years ago.
The local CFA brigades and the volunteers are truly incredible and as we commemorate and acknowledge the 10-year anniversary of their actions, it is not lost on me that they are out there right now currently fighting fires and protecting our local communities. We will always be in debt to the visiting CFA personnel that travelled great distances and fought in truly extraordinary conditions to save towns they had never visited before. In this regard I would like to again pay deep respectful tribute to their magnificent work as we pause to reflect upon the 10-year anniversary of the Delburn
complex of fires and the Black Saturday bushfires in the Morwell electorate. Precious lives were lost; homes and land were razed. However, the bravery, spirit and tenacity of our CFA brigades and volunteers was awe inspiring and life saving in so many instances. We are all in their debt for their dedication, particularly during those tragic weeks 10 years ago. ‘Thank you’ just does not seem enough.
There are more heroes, though: the police; SES volunteers; department personnel at the time; paramedics; hospitals; federal police; and disaster, victim and arson investigators. They all deserve our deepest gratitude. Also in the Morwell electorate, the Hancock Victorian Plantations—their fire crews were acknowledged for their efforts in protecting our local community as well. Red Cross, St Vinnies, St John Ambulance, Lifeline Gippsland, the Country Women’s Association, ABC Local Radio and many community associations all played key roles in supporting and coordinating help for those in immediate danger and in need.
Residents slowly returned to their properties. However, property owners across our community endured an agonising wait due to their properties being designated crime scenes. Let us not forget this was the second deliberately lit fire in our area in a week. This was a crime.
During these days there were over 1000 registrations with Australian Red Cross emergency services, with people searching for loved ones across the Gippsland region. Latrobe city established relief centres across our community. More than 800 people registered at emergency relief centres at Traralgon and we had great assistance from the Department of Human Services, Centrelink, Lifeline, Telstra, insurance agencies and others.
But a new emotion emerged too, and that was hope, with those stories of life-saving actions from the people within the community I mentioned earlier, who no doubt saved lives. We saw people such as the truck driver with his wife, who heard survivors on his CB radio and pulled over to speak with them and contact their families to tell them they were safe, and the police officers who finished their shift but continued to doorknock residents to alert them of the danger—this was paramount, as witnesses talked of the emergency warnings being behind on the day. We had the Koornalla resident who drove up and down the main street honking his horn and yelling at everyone to alert them of the impending danger; the Callignee and Traralgon South fire brigades and their crews, who whilst out fighting fires lost their own homes; local children who emptied their piggy banks to donate to such a great cause, supporting impacted people and families; people registering to offer rooms in their houses to complete strangers who had been displaced; the countless neighbours who did stay and put out embers on neighbours’ properties, and helped move animals or checked on their safety or saved a life. We will be forever in their debt, and 10 years later we continue to applaud their bravery and tenacity in the face of disaster. None of us knew then what we know now. Thankfully many positive changes have been implemented following these terrible events.
I also wish to commend the activities of the community groups, service clubs, charities, businesses and residents, who were nothing short of sensational during the time. I have spoken about Latrobe city’s relief and recovery centres, which were there to provide shelter, aid and support. State government departments and agencies at the time, the Department of Primary Industries and VicRoads, were also very helpful. And as was reported in our local press, the outpouring of generosity and donation of goods and funds from the local community was just absolutely staggering, supported by organisations such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, who helped coordinate the logistics of where those donated goods would go. The Gippsland Emergency Relief Fund, which has been in place since 1978, was able to support an amazing 856 families with more than $4 million donated in local communities. The Lions Club helped with the reconstruction of fences—a massive issue right across Victoria—as did other organisations and charities who got on board. And I would really like to refer to our local community associations and to the bushfire recovery committees that were formed at the time. They were an integral part of our region’s healing and revitalisation. And the leaders who led from the front and emerged from those forums, they are there and continue their amazing work to
this day in support of our fire-impacted communities. They are simply inspiring people and leaders, and I am looking forward to catching up with many of them at commemorations over the next few days.
Here in this house I recall an immense solidarity in our grief and experience, for which I will be forever grateful. It was a very difficult and stressful time for many of our communities which were irrevocably changed.
The effects of Black Saturday are still very raw for many today. This makes me think that in our role we need to ensure that we are supporting those with subsequent and long-term mental health issues. Support and funding for these victims and witnesses to receive adequate help must be ongoing, meaningful and sincere. It took a disaster for a lot of us to experience total generosity, selflessness, camaraderie, resilience, determination and community spirit like we had never seen before. I have always been so proud of the people of my electorate for that. In the face of complete devastation we bound together. Perhaps that is the take-home message 10 years on—that no matter what the elements throw at us, the people of Morwell and the good people of Victoria will always rise above the challenge.