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Thursday, 3 February 1994
Page: 270

Mr HARRY WOODS (9.48 a.m.) —I second the motion. I would firstly like to say that I support completely what the shadow minister, the honourable member for Bradfield (Mr Connolly) has just said. Generally, on both sides of this house, we are extremely proud of the effort the bushfire fighters put in at a time of crisis. There is no doubt that the New Year bushfires in New South Wales did tell a story of crisis, loss of property and loss of life. They also told of a community spirit of which, as Australians, we are immensely and justifiably proud. They showed that at a time of crisis we can come together, and that type of mateship has helped us, over 200 years, to live as a strong and close community in what is really a harsh land.

  The bushfire crisis showed us that we can forget our political differences, our neighbourhood jealousies, our prejudices—and all the other baggage that we carry in our daily lives—in order to look after those who are in trouble at times like this. It gave me great faith in the Australian people and the people of my community. All of us feel the same about the work done by the emergency services and the raft of other volunteers who helped to prevent the disaster from being much more severe.

  It also gave me confidence about a growing relationship with other countries in the Pacific and the South Pacific. I was surprised, I have to say, to learn that after the fires the people of Vanuatu had started a public appeal to raise funds to help the people with rebuilding in and around my electorate base of Grafton. Vanuatu is not a rich community; it is a very small Pacific island but, within days of the appeal having been launched, the target of $20,000 had been reached and appeal funds have now passed $25,000. I think that that is a remarkable effort and one of which the people of not only the Clarence Valley but the rest of Australia should be very appreciative.

  People of Vanuatu, some of them expatriate Australians, learned of the bushfires from TV broadcasts and they wanted to do as much as they could. But with a small population and low incomes, the prospect of raising those funds was perhaps a little daunting for them. They chose Grafton because we have a strong relationship which has been built over the last few years in a number of areas. Their generosity showed that that relationship was more than commercial, as it has been in the past; it was evidence of the growing affinity between the Clarence Valley and Vanuatu.

  The participation of the people in my electorate and from visiting firefighters that came to our region from Queensland, from Northern Territory and from many other parts of New South Wales was equally pleasing. It was an event which went a long way, I think, to restoring our faith in human nature, a faith that had been largely shattered by the actions of a few heartless and thoughtless fools who started the fires in the first place.

  Back at home the fires started long before Christmas, as far back as October, when the local press was running stories that bad times were ahead with the forthcoming bushfire season. Less than two weeks later the stories started about the first deliberately lit fires in and around national parks near Iluka. And they were right. Bad times certainly were ahead.

  On 27 December, the real problems started. Three villages—Angourie, Wooloweyah and Brooms Head—were at risk because of fire, again started by an arsonist. Sixty firefighters were required to get them under control, but they started to pop up all over the place. Now, as well as the fires in Brooms Head, Wooloweyah and Angourie, there were outbreaks near Grafton, Kyogle, Lynchs Creek, Middle Mountain and North Mountain, Cawongla, and soon they were at Dalmorton and Grange state forests. In Copmanhurst shire more than a dozen homes were threatened. New Year celebrations had to be put on hold for the 250 firefighters who had come from all over the state at a time of year when they would have liked to be home with their families and friends. They came many hundreds of kilometres in order to help prevent loss of life and property on the north coast.

  On 2 January bushfire authorities were hoping that they had most of the blazes under control but the positive outlook was short-lived. On 4 January the number of volunteers had swollen from 250 to 500 and there was no sign of things getting easier. The fires deteriorated badly and volunteer firefighter Robert Page lost his life at 3 a.m. on that day from another deliberately lit blaze north of Maclean when a tree fell on his vehicle. Four others were injured in the incident. It is worth noting that Robert Page had come to the north coast from south of Sydney to help there. There were something like 70 blazes going on at the time. People were being evacuated from camping grounds. They were living on sporting fields.

  It is difficult to comprehend even now the magnitude of it all. Almost everyone who could was helping. Those who could not be of direct assistance in the bush were helping by preparing meals and taking them to the volunteers in the field. It was a remarkable spectacle of cooperation. We even had a local health consultant offering the field workers free massages in order that they could get some relaxation if not much sleep.

  On 7 January the Acting Prime Minister (Mr Howe) came to Grafton and joined me in a flight over the fire stricken areas and he offered whatever help the government could provide. At that time the Clarence Valley and other parts of the north coast were fighting 45-degree heat, day after day, with no sign of rain, very low humidity, high winds and no prospect of the fires abating. A change in the weather late in the week brought the reprieve that everyone had been waiting for.

  A total of 2000 firefighters were involved in fighting the fires, which occurred largely within my electorate. I do not think either myself or any other member of the community can adequately express our appreciation for the work of these men and women and scores of others who worked behind the scenes. It was indeed a humbling and wonderfully rewarding experience to be able to join these men and women in the field on a number of nights and to be able to help control the blazes.

  The fires have raised questions across the state about fire management. It is clear that we can and must do more to help prevent outbreaks of such magnitude occurring again. If that had been done in the past perhaps those fires may have been more easily controlled. It will probably cause other states also to re-examine their fire management regimes.

  I think there is a role for politicians but we should always bear in mind that we are not the experts and that any decisions we reach should be based on the best possible advice from the best sources. There has been plenty said since the fires about what was perceived as a need for more controlled burns, about the need for more access trails and more burning through national parks. I think that is true but it needs to be done with advice and in a considered way.

  There has been plenty of criticism of the fire management practices of the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service but there has been little consideration in the argument so far of the needs for the other inhabitants of the land. Critics often tend to forget that the fires were equally as bad in other areas as they were in the north coast. Before making decisions, state and federal governments should weigh up all the options and not make decisions which are devised, if you like, in the heat of the moment.

  These fires gave a lesson which we can all take into our daily lives and that is if we work together we can achieve almost anything. It was something of a miracle that there were not more deaths or property losses. For that we can thank the efforts of thousands of volunteers who worked tirelessly and with great skill to do as much as they could to reduce the risks.

  I think country area brigades particularly, although their training is first class and their efforts could not be surpassed, very often work with equipment that is outdated. Although it is kept in good condition by them, their ability to fight the fires would certainly be enhanced by funding for up-to-date equipment. Many of the fire trucks and equipment are over 20 years old. Because of the funding arrangements, country area brigades often have to purchase those vehicles second hand from other fire services that have better funding. The situation is perhaps worse than that in the western area of New South Wales. That is one area that needs to be looked at very seriously. (Time expired)