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Wednesday, 20 February 2002
Page: 650


Mr BARTLETT (10:54 AM) —I suspect that very few members of this House will have experienced the fear of seeing a massive wall of flame approaching their home or the sense of utter devastation at seeing their home burnt to the ground. I am very thankful that I have not experienced that. In the recent Christmas bushfires, very sadly, a number of my constituents did, and they now have memories that some of them will never forget, that will live with them for life, having suffered loss that will take many, many years to rebuild and from which to recover. During those bushfires we lost 12 homes in the Blue Mountains and 14 homes in the Hawkesbury area, starting with the fire that raced up the gullies onto Cedar Ridge Road in East Kurrajong on Christmas Day. Many other homes were damaged and much other property lost as well.

To all of those people, first of all, who lost homes or property during those fires, I would like to express my sympathy and sorrow. Some people will never recover from the financial and personal loss incurred, including the loss of items of great emotional and sentimental value that will never be able to be replaced. To all of those people attempting to rebuild their properties and, in some cases their lives, after that devastation, we want to wish them well as they begin that arduous task.

What is amazing about these bushfires is that the loss was not far greater than it in fact was, considering the intensity of the fires fuelled by a build-up of fuel worse than we had seen for many years, and the adverse weather conditions that came together in a way that had not been experienced for many years as well. These fires were of an intensity and duration that many of my firefighters who have been in that work for 20 or 30 years said were the worst in their memory. What is amazing, given the intensity of those fires, is that the loss of property was not greater—in the whole of my electorate we lost only 26 homes. What is perhaps even more incredible, and something for which we need to be so thankful, is that no lives were lost at all during those fires—fires that raged at their peak for over two weeks and then, some time after that with reduced intensity. No lives were lost. The answer to why there was not great loss I think we have to put down to the tremendous efforts of the firefighters, that massive team of volunteers and paid professionals who put their lives on the line day after day in order to save property and to save life.

In the Blue Mountains we had 24 brigades of the Rural Fire Service and, in the Hawkesbury, 21 brigades augmented by many other organisations and help from interstate. As I understand, across New South Wales in total during those two weeks, we had some 6,000 Rural Fire Service volunteers and another 2,000 volunteers from interstate. In the Blue Mountains at any one time, 24 hours a day we had some 500 people at the fire front and another 500 people working in a support capacity. The RFS estimated during those two weeks that 132,000 hours of volunteer work were put into fighting those fires, with most of the firefighters on long shifts working tirelessly, many on 12-hour shifts on and off. In the Hawkesbury at the peak of the fires there, some 2,000 people were working at any one time—that is, at the fire front and as volunteers. It was just an outstanding effort.

It needs to be said that many other volunteer services also rolled up their sleeves and helped as well. From the SES, the State Emergency Service, in the Blue Mountains we had some 95 members and an estimated 6,000 hours of volunteer effort from them; in the Hawkesbury, similar sorts of numbers of help from the SES and from many other organisations right through the community. I will mention some, but I will not be able to mention the names of all. We had the regular New South Wales Fire Brigade, the New South Wales Ambulance Service, the St John Ambulance, the New South Wales Police, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, service organisations such as Rotary and Lions, many church groups, RAAF and Army personnel, service clubs, RSL clubs, bowling clubs and many others—volunteers from all walks of life who came in to pitch in with hours of time, money and supplies to help this effort. It was a tremendous community effort, a case of the community coming together in crisis.

But it was not just hours. It was the tremendous commitment as well. So many of the firefighters who were at the fire front put themselves between the fires and the properties and the lives of the people they were trying to protect. In many cases, one tanker and a small group of volunteer firefighters were the last things that stood between a raging wall of flame and peoples' homes—and, in some cases, the lives of their families. It took tremendous courage, dedication and commitment from these volunteer firefighters. We want to express our deep gratitude to those people.

Another point that needs to be made is that so much of the firefighters' effectiveness is because of the time and effort that has gone into training in the years beforehand. These volunteers do not just turn up on the day, get stuck into it, hope that it will all come together, show some bravery and hopefully save the day. The reason that they are so effective in the field is that they spend hundreds of hours throughout the year training to make sure they know what to do in a crisis. We do not notice that quite so often. We need to thank them for that ongoing commitment that enables them to be so effective and to save lives and properties when the crunch comes. To all of those people, we express our deep gratitude.

Another point that needs to be made—one that we often miss in terms of people who suffered—is about the effect of the fires on our small business operators and tourist operators, particularly in the Blue Mountains. I was quite appalled to see some of the exaggerated media reporting of these fires. We understand and appreciate the need for our media to convey to the public the extent of the devastation but, sadly, perhaps to sensationalise and to get the most mileage out of the issue, some of the reports were exaggerated. Our tourist operators, particularly in the Blue Mountains, were badly affected. Across the board, there was an average 60 per cent reduction in tourist visitor numbers to the Blue Mountains, which has an effect throughout the community—for example, on other businesses and employees.

Yesterday, I was very pleased to hear the Minister for Tourism and Small Business announce a package of some half a million dollars to promote tourism in my electorate. The fact is that the Blue Mountains are still blue. Better still, they are still green in spite of that devastation. It is a great place to visit. People ought not let those fires stop them from coming.

The last point I want to make is to remind people of the tremendous sense of celebration we had in the community when the fires were over. On 2 February, in Richmond, there was a massive street parade. On 10 February, another was held in Springwood, and there have been various other celebrations throughout our community. The spontaneous outburst of applause from those who lined the streets on those occasions really said it all. It was an emotional and overwhelming expression of the gratitude of our community for the tremendous work done by our firefighters. To all of those emergency services, to all of our volunteers and to all of the helpers, paid and unpaid, we want to say thank you for absolutely magnificent work. Thank you for taking the risks that you did. Thank you for your outstanding efforts in saving life and property.