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Monday, 23 November 2015
Page: 13261


Mr WILSON (O'Connor) (14:46): My question is to the Minister for Justice. Will the minister update the House on the bushfire situation in Esperance following the devastating bushfires over the past week?

Mr KEENAN (StirlingMinister for Justice and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Counter-Terrorism) (14:46): I thank the member for O'Connor for that question. I acknowledge the strong support that he has shown to fire affected parts of his electorate during the past week—particularly around Esperance, where there has been very significant fire damage and loss of life, as the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have already updated the parliament on today. There has been a combination of very severe weather in Western Australia—40-degree heat, 100-kilometre-an-hour winds and low humidity—and this has resulted in the deadliest fire conditions for the past four decades. There are still major fires burning in the Esperance area on Western Australia's south coast.

Over the past week, I have been in regular contact with my counterpart Joe Francis, the Minister for Emergency Services. The Prime Minister has also contacted Premier Barnett and been updated about the ongoing situation. Over the weekend, there were further difficult conditions which saw the Esperance fire break its containment lines on several occasions but also resulted in new blazes starting in Ellenbrook, the Julimar State Forest and around Bindoon—although those latter three fires have now been brought under control. The focus of the Western Australian authorities now remains on getting the Esperance fire under control.

On behalf of the Commonwealth, I thank the Western Australian emergency services personnel for their determination, bravery and courage in the face of very difficult circumstances. So far, the Esperance fires have destroyed several homes, left hundreds without power, destroyed over 200,000 hectares of prime agricultural land and, as has already been stated here in question time, tragically led to the loss of four lives. I offer our sympathy and our condolences to the families of those who have been affected by these fires.

Last week, in Perth, I took the opportunity to go out to the Western Australian state control centre to be briefed by the Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner, Wayne Gregson, and I have offered, through Minister Francis, assistance from the federal government to the Western Australian government, in terms of both the response and the recovery to this event. Under longstanding arrangements with the states, the Commonwealth has a range of mechanisms where we support states to recover from natural disasters, and we will continue to liaise with the Western Australian government regarding recovery assistance and monitor the impacts of these events.

Whilst talking about the Esperance fires, I would also take this opportunity to remind the House that we do face a very difficult summer. The strong El Nino weather pattern is likely to make conditions drier and warmer than normal, and this leads to heightened bushfire risk across vast parts of the country, particularly the south-east and the south-west. In view of that, it is useful for all Australians to prepare their homes and their families for the season ahead. Whilst the risk of being impacted by a disaster might seem remote, it does pay dividends to think about what you might do in the event of a disaster, and I would urge Australians to think about it in advance.