Parliament – bushfire condolence

Thursday, 06 February 2020

I rise to support this condolence motion. It has been really a very, very difficult time for so many. I’m also acutely aware that the crisis is not over. Fires are still burning, and, as we stand, there are still communities who remain under threat. The last few months have been a devastating time for our whole nation. While there’s been a significant impact on the eastern seaboard, there’s also been a significant impact in my home state of South Australia, with fire ripping through 25,000 hectares in the Adelaide Hills and 215,000 hectares on Kangaroo Island. The physical and mental impact on residents, as well as the toll on our natural environment, tourism industry and local businesses, is yet to be fully realised, but what we know so far is that it will be deep and long lasting.

Most significant over this summer has been the human toll. I want to acknowledge the 33 people who have tragically lost their lives during this bushfire season, including three South Australians—Dick Lang, Clayton Lang and Ron Selth. It is an unspeakable tragedy to lose people in such horrific circumstances, and my heart goes out to those families, friends and loved ones who have lost someone close to them. As was previously said on this motion, many people have lost the centre of their world, and life will never, ever be the same. It’s important for us to express that we are with them, we’re thinking about them and we want to do everything we can to lessen that pain.

There has also been injury to many, both psychological and physical, and we need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to help people who are suffering psychologically and physically as a result of these fires. And of course there’s been property loss and damage, to homes, to businesses, to people’s livelihoods. It’s important that we are with people as they rebuild their lives and, as the previous speaker said, not for a short period of time but for a long period of time.

A lot has been said about our volunteer firefighters. It’s hard to imagine, but the efforts that we’ve seen right across the country, where fires have been fought and people’s lives and properties have been saved, have been in many places performed by volunteers. I know that the selfless bravery of both our paid and volunteer firefighters during this crisis has left many Australians in awe. These are people who, many of them without reward, have put themselves in the path of the fires to protect people, animals and property. I’d like to acknowledge both those who are formally firefighters and those who took up the firefighting responsibility, who were not trained firefighters, who went and helped out neighbours, friends and even communities where they were strangers. There were some former firefighters, some volunteer firefighters and some who just became firefighters for the day or for the week. Their bravery, I know, will be acknowledged in the coming months and years, but I would like to say thank you.

In southern Adelaide I’d like to particularly acknowledge the Mawson Group of the CFS, which encompasses Blewitt Springs, Clarendon, Happy Valley, Kangarilla, Mawson Group Operations Support, McLaren Flat, Morphett Vale and Seaford brigades. These are local firefighters who, for the most part, have not had their communities directly impacted by the fire but who went to support their neighbours in communities alongside them, communities in need. They have made huge sacrifices to help people right across our state and indeed interstate.

I recently visited the Seaford Brigade and heard firsthand the experiences that the firefighters had. The crew, devastatingly, lost a six-month-old fire truck in a burnover while protecting homes in the Adelaide Hills. Thankfully, none of the firefighters were physically harmed. However, the crew told me of the deep psychological impact of being stuck in a truck. Imagine: you are fighting a fire, it is out of control, and it burns over you. Your vehicle is unable to move. You are trapped. That would have a significant impact. They described the intense sound of the fire blazing over them while they waited for the flames to pass. And when they finally went to drive away, they discovered that the flames had completely melted their tyres.

This is one of the many incidents that we’ve got to recognise. Each one will have an impact, and a different impact, on those firefighters. We need to make sure that we respond appropriately to the impact that it’s had. The appliance, which was a new appliance, had to be sent away for repairs. The crew managed to get their hands on the burnt numberplate of the truck, which serves as a permanent reminder of what they endured this fire season. It is an important psychological memento of what they’ve been through.

In talking with our volunteer firefighters, they have asked not for any reward, but they did want to talk to me about the fact that it is difficult balancing their day jobs with being volunteer firefighters, especially in a season that has demanded not days of firefighting effort but weeks and months. These conversations have certainly reaffirmed to me that we need a conversation about how better to support our volunteer firefighters, especially since, as we go into the future, we know that we are going to see more and more intense conditions, longer-burning fires and more difficult conditions in many places in Australia at once. It is really important that we have a serious conversation about how we best resource those individuals and best support them to do work that potentially will go on for months.

In addition, I would like to recognise that, while it has been a very intense and difficult summer, our firefighters do difficult work all year round. Our volunteer firefighters and other emergency services get called out to fires and other difficult emergencies all year round. They go to things like car accidents on a regular basis. So I think it’s really important that, while the work that volunteer firefighters have done this summer is fresh in our mind, we extend our thanks for their volunteer efforts all the time, all year, knowing that they work hard to protect our community through the 365 days of the year.

One of the other aspects of this bushfire season that has been distressing to so many around the country has been the widespread loss of animal life and other wildlife as a result of the fires. It’s been deeply felt by many Australians and, indeed, people across the world. On Kangaroo Island alone up to 30,000 koalas have perished. With so much habitat, food and water destroyed, it’s expected that the fires will lead to the endangerment and could even lead to the extinction of a number of species. I also want to pay tribute to the volunteers across South Australia and Australia who have been rising to the challenge of caring for our injured wildlife. There have been many volunteer organisations and volunteers themselves, not in any formal way, who have risen to the challenge of donating goods or going out there into the fire ground to actually look for and care for these animals. They are doing everything they can to save animals’ lives and to try and put something back into the habitat to ensure that those that have survived the fire can survive in a burnt-out habitat. I recently visited one of the many volunteer organisations doing this important work at Minton Farm Animal Rescue Centre, which is run by Bev and Glenn Langley and their many volunteers. They’ve been doing really important work not only caring for animals but acting as a distribution centre for feed and watering devices that actually can help. I would like to say a big thank you to all of those doing this work. This work will continue for many months and years to come as the habitats rebuild, so I would like to thank them for their work.

Of course, in times of devastation and difficult natural disasters, we do see the best of humanity. That statement has rung true in this summer of bushfire crises. People far and wide, across the country, South Australia and the world have stepped up to help people in need. And not only has it been friends and family that have stepped up; people have stepped up for strangers, for people they don’t know but want to help. I think this has been just extraordinary.

In my local community in southern Adelaide, which was not directly impacted by the bushfires, local residents have put on many events to raise thousands and thousands of dollars, and have donated food and other items to communities in need. Some of this has been through organised donations. Some of it has just been off their own back, working out what they can do to help. Soul Good Cafe in Old Reynella donated $1 from every cup of coffee and $2 from each homemade cupcake to the Kangaroo Island mayor bushfire appeal. Maxwell’s Groceries raised and donated $1,300 to Bush Organics, a business on KI that lost almost everything. I’m aware of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association in the south who helped in the Adelaide Hills actually packing up donations and doing the grunt work. The South Adelaide Football Club and the Southern Districts Stingrays—football and cricket—came together and held a T20 cricket fundraiser which raised over $17,000 for communities in need.

There are countless stories of generosity from businesses, organisations, community groups and individuals—communities helping communities, neighbours helping neighbours, Australians helping fellow Australians. During the tragedy, our country’s peoples’ generosity has been a beacon of hope. There’s a lot of rebuilding to be done right across Australia, right across South Australia: repairs to property, addressing the ecological damage and ensuring our industries bounce back.

I will do a shout-out. There are many practical things people can do: buy Adelaide Hills wine or produce; come and visit the Adelaide Hills; perhaps a visit to Kangaroo Island. Kangaroo Island produce is some of the best in the world. It’s worth actually treating yourself. Go and visit. I certainly implore people to think about those communities that are doing it tough and I encourage you. They are open for business. You’ll have a wonderful time. Please support these communities.

The scars of these fires will linger for a long time to come, and it’s important that communities that are affected know that we are supporting you. We want to make sure that you’re able to rebuild in the months and years ahead. We want to make sure that your physical and psychological health is cared for, that you are supported in your efforts to rebuild and that we can continue to work with you to rebuild your communities. On that note: our thoughts are with all those communities. Thank you.

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