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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 789

Mr MITCHELL (4:39 PM) —Saturday, 7 February 2009 was a day in our nation’s history that we shall never forget. Effectively, it was the day that hell visited Victoria and left a permanent scar on its departure. My community was ravaged by an inferno of flames faster and more powerful than anything we had ever seen before. Helen Kenny, the captain of the St Andrews CFA, said it was a day they had trained for but a day they had hoped would never happen. She said that, in the days leading up to it, they knew it would be bad, but they had never dreamed that they would face such a fire of fury.

It was nightmare which left people dead, injured, homeless and hurt. Ordinary Australians defended their homes as best they could. Some were successful; others were not. Many were caught trying to escape the heat and ferocity of the flames as Mother Nature proved to be too fast, too strong and too vicious. Trapped and confused, some had no option but to sit and wait for the flames to engulf their homes and everything they owned.

We lost 173 people on that day. They were family, they were friends and they were neighbours. But we must not forget those who died following the fires as a result of its impact, whether it be physical, psychological or emotional. There was eerie silence on the landscape after the fires. There were no birds and no animals, only the smell of destruction and carnage to fill your senses. In its wake, the fires left homes burnt out, schools destroyed and communities devastated. It looked like a war zone and it smelt like a war zone—because it was a war zone.

John McCrohan, President of the Hurstbridge RSL, gave an address on Anzac Day. He said:

I would like everyone to remember soldiers of a different war. A war caused by man’s efficiency and nature’s wrath. Black Saturday.

The soldiers of this war were CFA, the SES volunteers, police, ambulance and more importantly, bushfire victims who lost their homes and belongings.

Even more importantly, those who lost their lives. Mums, dads, boys and girls. They should be remembered alongside our gallant diggers of past conflict.

After wars, as we know them, soldiers returned to their homes and loved ones and, with their support, tried to forget the death and destruction. But the scars always remained.

After the War of Black Saturday some victims will rebuild and start a new life.

So I ask you today to remember these soldiers of Black Saturday, along with the fallen soldiers of past conflicts.

People walked out of that death and destruction, proud and bewildered, with little more than the clothes on their backs and the thongs on their feet, but they were filled with a spirit that only Australians can muster. Looking back to the days following the fires, I can remember through the darkness and destruction of my community how the colour and strength of our national flag shone through. Through the wind, the Southern Cross was strongly waving throughout many homes and the townships across the scorched and blackened landscape. One flag I can recall was damaged by the fires, but it was still standing, waving proudly in the winds that followed Black Saturday and telling Mother Nature that despite her power we would not be beaten. To me, that flag symbolised the true Aussie spirit and resilience: we were wounded but not beaten. It showed that we would never give up hope.

The people of McEwen are real fighters. In the days and the months and the two years since that terrible day, we have witnessed the best of human strength, spirit and resilience. Local halls, sporting clubs and community centres were turned into relief centres, which were quickly inundated with volunteers and goods. People from all walks of life and from all points of the state and the nation donated their goods, their time and their money to support those in their darkest hour.

My sincere thanks go to the CFA, the Victoria Police, the State Emergency Service, the Department of Sustainability and Environment, the Department of Primary Industries, the paramedics, the Australian Defence Force, all the local clubs and auxiliaries, the Red Cross, St Vinnies, the Salvation Army and particularly the army of volunteers across the country who came and gave all. Selfless acts of heroism are what we saw consistently on that day and in the days that followed.

There are probably no words big enough or strong enough to thank the CFA volunteers for what they went through. I also remember Danielle Green, the state member for Yan Yean, and Ben Hardman, the former member for Seymour. They were both on strike teams at the fire front from the moment it started and they continued until the fire had passed their areas. To try to put it into context, I think it is appropriate to use the words of Winston Churchill following the service of airmen during the Battle of Britain when he said:

Never was so much owed by so many to so few.

On behalf of all members of this place, I say thank you to the army of volunteers in my community. Thank you for everything you have done to support our communities.

From the tragedy came opportunity—an opportunity to learn and an opportunity to share and understand that loss, grief and devastation are universal. Students and staff at the Diamond Valley College used the power of education to share their experience and to inspire others. Together with students from the International School of Kabul, in Afghanistan, they published a book titled 1000 Pencils. It is a journey of connectedness from Kinglake to Kabul. In his foreword, Principal Greg Williams wrote:

In the post devastation silence they are the voices of promises and hope.

The students who had lost so much wrote:

We know our disaster is nothing compared to 30 years of war in Afghanistan, but it has helped us to understand and care for others.

They have now published a second book, titled From Kinglake to Kabul, which was launched on 13 February. I was proud to be there for the launch and I can say, after just reading the book, that the stories the children have written themselves—their own personal recollections—are very powerful, very raw and very honest. The book is worth reading and it was a pleasure to meet the students there, from Kabul and from Diamond Creek, who had put pen to paper. As I said, the book—the words of those students from year 8 and year 9—is very powerful.

Many locals in our area have devoted themselves to the recovery of bushfire affected communities and the landscape, helping those around them, some of whom they have never me, despite having lost so much themselves. People like Alex and Julie Sutherland, with the VFF, have coordinated thousands of volunteers to the affected properties to help clean up fences and erect new ones. Julie and Alex made the decision to deploy me and a group of Young Labor volunteers to a property in St Andrews to help with rebuilding. The property was once a home to Felicity and Peter Wiltshire, volunteers from the St Andrews CFA, before it was burnt out by the fires. Peter had been a volunteer with the CFA for over 23 years and Felicity had established a local Fireguard group, a group of young people concerned about fire prevention, protection and management. As we put up the fences, I knew that we were helping people who had devoted their lives to helping others, although the hours that we spent there would never amount to the hours they had given in their time with the CFA.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 4.47 pm to 5.04 pm

Mr MITCHELL —As I was saying, we were deployed by Alex and Julie Sutherland and the VFF to go out and help rebuild fences in bushfire affected areas. Peter has been a volunteer of the CFA in St Andrews for 23 years and Felicity established the local Fireguard group—a group of local people concerned about prevention, protection from and management of fires. We put up new fences and I knew that I was helping people who had devoted their lives to helping others. Although the hours we spent there would never amount to the hours they had given to the local CFA, we knew it was of some assistance. We knew that the fences were an everlasting reminder of our commitment and support, because we were united in the belief that we would rebuild.

Although communities are starting to get back on their feet, there is still a long way to go and much more work to be done. Today I would just like to remember some of the towns that were affected, such as Strathewen, St Andrews, Arthurs Creek, Kinglake, Kinglake West, Pheasant Creek, Whittlesea, Humevale, Marysville, Narbethong, Buxton, Taggerty, Flowerdale, Glenburn, Strath Creek, Upper Plenty, Clonbinane, Redesdale, Reedy Creek, Castella, Wondong, Heathcote Junction, Healesville, Chum Creek, Toolangi, Yarra Glen, Dixons Creek, Steeles Creek and Christmas Hills—and others that were affected as well.

I am also reminded of what local resident Gary Hughes wrote, when he said:

BLACK Saturday survivors know calendars lie. They might chart the passage of days, weeks, months and years, but they do not record the passing of time.

That is why Black Saturday happened only yesterday, as far as survivors are concerned. And it will always be so, no matter how many weeks, months or years the calendar insists have passed since February 7, 2009.

Black Saturday is a constant companion. It is there haunting your thoughts when you are awake. It is there stalking your dreams when you try to sleep.

Like other survivors, we have tried to move on. Physically, we have partly succeeded. We have swapped our blackened 8ha hilltop at St Andrews for a charming 60-year-old renovated house with an equally charming, lush green garden in Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs.

There are no gum trees. We decided we could not face those future summers, when the hot, dry northerlies inevitably reignited the fears and brought back the trauma of Black Saturday. We could no longer face that annual routine of bushfire preparations. And we were not prepared to live our lives as seasonal gypsies, packing boxes of important papers and precious possessions into cars and leaving home on every high-risk day. (After our experiences on Black Saturday, staying again to defend would never be an option.)

We know we are lucky.

He went on to say

In some cases families have been torn apart over this decision.

We are full of admiration for those determined to rebuild. But to us, that blackened and bare hilltop will never be the same.

These personal stories are echoed right across the scarred landscape from Clonbinane to Marysville. From Flowerdale to St Andrews and all points in between ordinary Australians are wrestling with the demons that this fire brought upon them. It is important to recognise and acknowledge everyone’s individuality when facing the challenges of recovery. Surviving this traumatic experience has changed many lives in our communities forever, leaving many struggling to return to normality as they face the challenge of learning to live with what we call ‘the new normal’. This will not happen overnight. People will do it, but they will do it in their own time, at their own pace and in the their own way. Our obligation is to be there with them as they recover and rebuild.

On the second anniversary, Cathy Soulsby from Clonbinane wrote a wonderful poem, Recovery Rainbow, that, with your indulgence, I would like to read. I think it goes a long way to describing the thoughts and feelings that people are having since this tragedy.

In this summer of green and gold,

Dark memories of that day we hold

Deep within, for the scars remain

Like a tattoo, a permanent stain.

That day which threw our lives off track

We went out of the red and into the black,

We stood on the rim of a bottomless pit

Then we climbed our mountains bit by bit.

It’s hard to believe two years have passed,

To me, at least, it’s travelled so fast,

Now the bush rebounds with verdant passion

In a kind of jungle fashion.

So as we journey into the pink

It’s a time for reflection, a time to think,

A time to rejoice in what we’ve achieved,

A time to surrender all we have grieved.

I think that is a beautiful poem that goes to the very heart of the things that people are facing.

I could never name the volunteers and the people who have been so special to the community since that time, but I think it is important to thank the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, for everything she has done following on from the work of the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and Bill Shorten as the Parliamentary Secretary for Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction. I know with Bill that just about every day I would get a phone call from him to say, ‘We are going to do this. Come and see what is going on.’ And we would sort of tick tack across the electorate to find ways that we could cover as much as we could to help as many people as we could who were recovering and were suffering during that time.

Two years on, we have come a long way. We know there is a long way to go. I certainly hope for our Queensland friends and those affected by the floods that the lessons we learnt during Black Saturday and afterward will go a long way to helping their recovery, helping them get back to normal as quickly as possible knowing full well that ‘normal’ will never be normal again.