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Thursday, 3 February 1994
Page: 307


Ms DEAHM (12.37 p.m.) —Earlier this morning, I had the privilege of speaking on the private member's motion relating to the New South Wales bushfires. I would like to take that discussion a step further, in the few minutes that I have, to talk about what happens after the fires. What can we learn, and where do we go from here? Firstly, I would like to observe that fires, like floods and other disasters, are no respecters of electorate boundaries—either federal, state or local government—and this has come home very strongly to me, because my electorate comprises principally two major local government areas. This is particularly pertinent in the area of hazard reduction.

  Hazard reduction has been discussed to a great extent throughout the fires. We have seen bush fire brigade volunteers, ADF personnel and others, all burning firebreaks and digging firebreaks under very hazardous circumstances. In many cases, those breaks should have been created earlier. In the Blue Mountains, we recreated what is now being known as the black line. It is approximately 50 kilometres long, from Winmalee to Blackheath, through national park and council land. It was created in 1982, but was allowed to revegetate.

  I would strongly suggest, as do a number of other people in the community, that that line be now maintained. It can be created as a bushwalk and for recreational purposes; it may be diverted where there are environmental sensitivities, but it needs to be retained. The hazard reduction program needs to be more centralised. It should not just be left to each individual local government area because, by creating a hazard reduction in one area, we can be inadvertently sending the fire to another area. More centralised control and cooperation over that area are extremely important. As I mentioned earlier, I have spoken to Mr Phil Koperberg, the New South Wales Commissioner, and he agrees that this is an issue that needs to be discussed.

  The other area that came to the fore was that of equipment, particularly communications equipment. I had the sad realisation that the bush fire brigades in the Hawkesbury and the Blue Mountains, which are either side of the same mountain range and straddling the same valley, are on different radio frequencies. The captain of Yarramundi brigade, at the bottom of the hill, told me that he had received a phone call from the captain of Winmalee, to tell him the fire was coming his way. With the differing radio frequencies, and had the phone lines been down, not even a carrier pigeon would have been much use!

  So communications is definitely an area where we need improvement. I am glad to hear that the federal government, through the Minister for Communications and the Arts (Mr Lee), is looking into the area of creating more radio frequencies specifically for bushfire fighting. Of course, in this particular fire the use of helicopters was extensive. There was a lot of confusion where people were trying to talk to ground vehicles and there were people also talking to helicopters. That needs to be improved.

  Some brigades have very modern transport equipment and tankers. In the Hawkesbury, one brigade has a World War II Studebaker, which was very impressive in the parade but I do not think it is terribly reliable in firefighting. There was another piece of equipment that I thought perhaps came from an earlier war. When we leave the equipping of the brigades to local government, which is hard pressed trying to make the rates go round, I think we have a real problem. More centralised organisation is preferable.

  On the issue of using helicopters or planes, I have had a lot of pressure put on me to push for either buying or leasing the larger planes from Canada and Europe which are used for water bombing. There were some people in my area who said, `Look, the helicopters are small, they can dive down and scoop up from a dam, and be down into a valley in minutes'. Other people are saying, `The bigger plane may take longer but it can cover more territory'. I would like to see extensive research on that at all levels of government.

  We also learnt something about insurance. I know there were people with no insurance madly trying to get cover while the fire was at their door. I certainly do not approve of that, but I did have a couple of instances in my electorate, and I will be taking these to the Minister for Consumer Affairs (Ms McHugh), where people's insurance was due for renewal at that time and companies refused to renew their policies. I think that is deplorable, and it is something I certainly want to follow up on.

  The other issue was about the media reporting. I know that the central control centre did a wonderful job in briefing the media but, as an earlier speaker said, there were lots of other people ringing in and giving contrary information. The people of Kurrajong were very upset that people were told in the media that fire was lapping at their door when in fact it was Kurrajong Heights. To the media that does not mean a lot; geographically, to the people of that area, it certainly does. Smaller areas got a little bit overlooked at times. The people of the small village of St Albans in the Macdonald Valley were still battling for their lives and property after the emergency was over. Fortunately, heavy rain saved them.

  Tourism is another issue. In the Blue Mountains and in the Hawkesbury, we depend greatly on tourism for our local industry, our local income and our employment. Honourable members may have seen the full-page ads in the Sydney Morning Herald recently which said, `The mountains are blue, not black'. This was a result of tourism operators getting together, because they have lost a lot of business, not only people who could not come when the roads were closed but people who had been cancelling bookings further into this year. The reality in the Blue Mountains is that only if one goes down Hawkesbury Road, which is not generally one of the major tourist areas, will one see burnt-out bush and burnt-out houses. Driving up the highway to the major lookouts, everything is still lush and green, and I hope it stays that way, because that is the side of the highway that I live on.

  I would like to see that no blame is apportioned to any particular level of government or any particular group of people. The greenies have had a bit of a knocking from some people and I know there are extremists on both sides of the argument, but all the responsible conservationists I know do respect the fact that we need hazard reduction, that we need good land management in order to be able to appreciate the assets that we have in our native flora and fauna, as well as protecting lives and property. I hope we will sit down and consider those things, learn from what has happened and do it better next time.