CONDOLENCES – Victorian Bushfires – House of Reps Hansard – 9 February 2009

Mr GIBBONS (Bendigo) (3:11 PM) —

I too rise in support of this condolence motion.

No matter how good the news reporter, no matter how skilled the photographer, no matter how brave the cameraman, it is impossible for most of us to appreciate from media reports just what it is like to experience a horrific bushfire. When you speak to people who have been through these horrors, you hear firsthand about the towering flames and the unbelievable speed with which they engulf everything before them. You hear about the unbearable heat that burns your skin, blisters paint and melts solid objects before your very eyes. You hear about the dense, acrid smoke that makes it impossible to see more than a couple of feet around you—smoke that chokes and burns your airways as you try to breathe and irritates your eyes, making it even harder for you to see. You hear about the noise—the roar of the flames, the wailing of the sirens, the beating rotors of water-bombing helicopters and the intermittent explosions as the heat ignites gas cylinders. You hear about the guts and determination to save family members, pets and livestock, family homes and lifetimes of possessions. You hear about successful efforts to defeat the flames against all odds, and you hear about the despair when the flames win the unequal battle and devour homes and memories. And of course you hear about the loss of life—of family, friends, neighbours, pets, livestock and native wildlife.

Last weekend was one of the darkest in Victoria’s history. We knew it was coming. Weather forecasters had been telling us for weeks that the conditions were going to be deadly, the worst since Ash Wednesday 1983. Temperatures soared all around the state, and more than a month without rain compounded the effects of more than a decade of drought. The emergency services had been issuing warnings for days. Ten days earlier my electorate had a foretaste of what we could expect, when smaller fires threatened the townships of Malmsbury and Taradale. Many rural residents around my electorate heeded this warning and reviewed their personal fire-management plans. Fire-fighting equipment was checked and checked again. Protective clothing was at the ready. Last Saturday morning dawned bright and clear. Within hours the mercury was climbing as the temperature broke new records. The wind speed increased until it resembled some gigantic fan heater. Many people in Bendigo had been out early to do their shopping and had retreated .to the comfort of their air conditioners to sit out the day. The day seemed to be passing quietly—until mid-afternoon.

Then, as the Prime Minister has said, ‘Hell in all its fury visited the good people of Victoria.’ It visited Bendigo in the form of a firestorm in the inner suburb of Maiden Gully. Within minutes 15-metre high flames raced through the tinder dry undergrowth towards the suburbs of West Bendigo, California Gully, Long Gully and Eaglehawk. Despite the warnings, a fire in the middle of the city came as a complete surprise to most of the residents. ‘I never thought I’d see this happen here,’ one told the local newspaper.

In the ensuing hours, the fire consumed homes, sheds, tractors and cars as it roared across the west of Bendigo. Three hundred fire-fighters tackled the inferno and countless residents battled to save their homes. Some succeeded; some did not. The area is now littered with burnt timbers and corrugated iron. Scorched brick chimney stacks stand like tombstones to the memory of the houses of which they were once part.

The final property toll is still not certain. This morning it appears that 20 homes have been confirmed as destroyed, and this figure could rise as high as 50 as the investigation teams continued to carry out their work. Sadly, it has been confirmed that at least one person has lost his life and there are reports of a possible second casualty that is yet to be confirmed. The confirmed fatality was a 48-year-old man who was confined to a wheelchair and could not escape from his burning home. Our thoughts and condolences go to his family and his friends at this difficult time.

At the same time that Bendigo was going through its own hell, another blaze at Redesdale, to the south-west of the city, was burning through 10,000 hectares of farmland and bush. Seven homes have been confirmed as destroyed, and this figure could reach 15 once the investigations have concluded. Fortunately, there appears to have been no loss of life in human form from this fire, but livestock and wildlife losses are expected to be significant.

Naturally, we offer our condolences to those who lose loved ones in tragedies such as this, but our thoughts must also be with those who have escaped with their lives but have lost their homes and livelihoods. It is, of course, true that houses can be rebuilt and furniture, televisions, carpets and curtains can all be replaced. So can important documents such as passports and drivers licences. But many other possessions lost in fires are irreplaceable. Photographs, old school reports, letters, childhood toys and family heirlooms are all part of who we are. When we lose these precious mementos we lose a part of ourselves. The scars of losing them can run deep indeed. So our thoughts are also with those who have survived this ordeal but lost their homes and precious possessions.

This morning the Bendigo fire is under control and the people affected are now in the recovery phase. Fire-fighters expect to have the fire at Redesdale contained later today. We must, of course, pay tribute to our emergency service workers. During the fires in my electorate there were countless heroic efforts to save people and possessions, and we must not forget that similar efforts are still being made in other parts of Victoria even as we speak today. Many of our fire-fighters are volunteers. They readily give up their spare time to protect our communities and they work tirelessly when called out to a fire. It is surely no exaggeration to say that we could not survive without them.

Our thanks also go to our police officers and medical emergency workers, whose efforts were indispensable. I would also like to thank the workers from the various organisations that are now helping the Bendigo and Redesdale communities recover from their ordeal—the officers and councillors from the Macedon Ranges Shire Council, other councils around Victoria and, in particular, the staff, officers and councillors of the City of Greater Bendigo, who have demonstrated superb organisational skills when implementing their long established disaster management system. This has been a huge help for those directly affected by this tragedy, and everyone in Bendigo should be extremely proud of the way they have carried out their roles and responsibilities.

State, federal and local government assistance is now available, and offers of help from the community and community organisations have been overwhelming. In a macabre way, Bendigo was fortunate last weekend. Other communities around Victoria have already suffered much greater loss of life and homes, and the danger continues while fires remain out of control. Our thoughts are with all those Victorians who are still battling the worst bushfire disaster in our history and with those who are starting the long road to recovery from its horrendous effects.

I would also like to thank all members of this House who have sent messages of goodwill and encouragement over the last couple of days—they were much appreciated.