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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 798

Mr RUDD (Minister for Foreign Affairs) (5:32 PM) —in reply—On 21 February 2009 I paused to reflect on the devastation wrought by the Black Saturday fires on Victorian towns and on the collective heart of Australia. I promised then that those affected would not be alone, that they would not be forgotten and that we would rebuild. One year on in February 2010 as Prime Minister I reflected on the magnitude of the loss. One hundred and seventy- three Australians lost their lives and more than 800 others were injured, some with a horrific burns. More than 1,800 homes were destroyed and more than 15,000 people registered as affected by the fires at relief centres and other official areas in the days after the firestorm.

Donations of clothes and food flooded in, driven by a truckies who simply got into their rigs and drove for hours and, in some cases, right across the country—I remember meeting one of them at the time who had driven all the way from Perth—with one simple thing in mind: to help their fellow Australians. As a Queenslander I have experienced a lot of that just recently. It is the same Australia, the same spirit of reaching out to one another when the elements turn against us. We did then and we will do so again. Let us not forget that $318 million was donated to the Red Cross Victorian bushfire recovery appeal. That was one year ago.

Two years on, we reflect once again on that tragedy, the effects of which rippled through our nation and across the ocean. Today I would like to reflect on some individuals. Stephen Lackas, self-employed stonemason, was the first fatality, I am advised, of the Black Saturday fires. When fire threatened Upper Plenty, Stephen sent his wife, Sandra, and son, Bailey, to safety while he remained to stand and fight. Like many, Stephen was not able to adequately assess the danger because of the thick smoke that shielded the flames. By the time he was ready to concede, the flames had surrounded him. Two years on, Sandra and Bailey are symbols of hope. They have rebuilt on their land a home that Stephen envisioned for the family. Their horses survived—they have even thrived—and Bailey takes great delight in caring for the new foals. He is a little boy but a very big hero in my books. Not content to rebuild their own lives, Bailey and his mum will travel to Queensland, my home state, to help in the wake of the devastating floods. Sandra was adamant that, to repay the goodwill that had supported them in their bleakest hours, it was right to pass it on to others.

In the weeks immediately after the fires, I met Ziad Ghobril, a local sparky and a member of the recovery effort. Ziad and his team of 30 worked with the Army and other authorities to restore power, provide emergency generators and reconnect power lines to communities decimated by fire. Ziad exemplifies the Australian spirit. When the blaze was at its peak, Ziad rang his employee, Jason Lynn, and urged him to flee to safety. But Jason was not ready to abandon hope. Jason battled resolutely to save the handcrafted furniture and tools his late father had bequeathed him. Jason was also among the many who underestimated the ferocity of the fires that Black Saturday. After the flames consumed his home and his shed, Jason fled with his life, only to collapse on the outskirts of the property. Startled awake by the mobile phone, Jason took heed of Ziad’s advice to him to get to the dam. With Ziad’s voice to keep him company, Jason lay semiconscious in the shallows of the dam, the screaming of animals in nearby paddocks ringing in his ears. Ziad raised the alarm with Whittlesea fire station and a CFA team was dispatched. Jason was ferried to safety.

In nearby Kinglake, as the flames licked the fringes of their property, a young couple bundled their two children into the car and attempted to negotiate a road blanketed by thick smoke. As the husband and father concentrated furiously on the white line dividing the road, cars on either side exploded in flames or careened into trees. The wing mirror liquefied in the heat of the encroaching flames and a burning man thumped wildly on the car window, begging for salvation.

These are truly horrible scenes, not from an apocalyptic film but, rather, from what we saw on Black Saturday. This is the horrifying recollection of Darren Wakelin from the day the Black Saturday fires engulfed his property. Darren, his wife, Bronwyn, and their two children were lucky to survive. After a period of solemn reflection, they determined to rebuild in Kinglake. Their return was marked by a chorus of car horns from the close-knit community. Like many others, the support shown by local, national and international communities has given the Wakelin family the strength to rebuild.

The Davey family were not so lucky. Rob and Natasha Davey were soul mates, with a relationship spanning almost 20 years. Rob was confident that the fire pumps, poses, mops and buckets on hand would be ample to save the family home on Bald Spur Road. But nothing could have prepared the young family for the onslaught on Black Saturday. Rob, Natasha and their infant daughters, Alexis and Jorja, perished in the ferocious fires that tore through Kinglake. Further up the hill on Bald Spur Road—renamed ‘Bald Spur cemetery’ by locals—Graham McKee looks down on the ruination. The Davey home is marked by two dead flowers fastened to a post. Sixteen of Graham’s neighbours perished on a stretch of road he still cannot bring himself to traverse.

A year after the fires, small shrines were erected outside flattened family homes, relatives unable to move forward. In other parts of the town, hammers and saws rent the air, signs that some folk were ready to move forward. Kinglake pumpman Ross Buchanan was ready to defend his home from the fires that threatened his town. He dropped his two kids Neeve and Mackenzie at the home of his in-laws for safety. With the support of his neighbours, both equipped with fire hose reels, Ross triumphed and his home was saved. He returned to find his mother-in-law in intensive care with severe burns and news that his children had perished. As a father I really cannot begin to fathom this pain; I do not dare to.

One year on, with remarkable spirit and humanity, Ross orchestrated a thankyou concert to acknowledge the efforts of the millions who had helped devastated communities recover. That is very much the Australian way. It is good to see it at work today. Where ash covered the land, bright green shoots have pushed through the surface. Bright green moss has emerged and ferns have sprung to life. Eucalypts sport new growth to nourish their stricken communities. Folks have returned, businesses have reopened and families have rebuilt. Schools have reopened and the community has regained a routine and a semblance of normality in the wake of this most extraordinary of tragedies. With a long way to go, the healing process has begun.

The fire ripped the guts out of these communities. For those of us who saw it at the time and for those who supported local families at the time it leaves an indelible impression on your mind, your heart and your memory. But that is for one who just visited, not for one who was among it. To be among it, I marvel at the courage of those who have come through. To banish those memories from your mind is near impossible and to now fashion new hope and new life, particularly with little kids at stake, takes courage beyond all measure. So for all those good people of all those great towns which make up the fabric of rural Victoria and rural Australia: we remember you on today’s date. We remember you on this commemoration. We remember you because what you went through was just plain unfair and this is a time for remembrance.