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Wednesday, 20 February 2002
Page: 651

Dr MARTIN (11:03 AM) —I join with each and every member of the parliament who has spoken in this debate to congratulate all those folk who were involved in fighting the dreadful fires that commenced on Christmas Day 2001 and engulfed much of New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. Like so many of the other speakers, I am a representative of a community that was touched in a very real sense by the fires. Our community's spirit was evident not only during the fighting of the fires but in the subsequent support systems that were put in place to look after people who had been dreadfully affected.

In Wollongong and the areas I represent, there were two main fires. The first was the Appin Road fire, which commenced at 12.30 p.m. on Christmas Day. It impacted on Darkes Forrest, on Helensburgh and on Stanwell Tops. It burnt into the Sutherland Shire and also impacted on Waterfall and the surrounding areas. In total, some 15,000 hectares in Wollongong and Wollondilly were affected. That is a pretty substantial piece of ground. Many honourable members would know the area that I am referring to. It is the area of Wollongong's northern suburbs and the habitated parts of Sutherland Shire, with the Royal National Park in between.

Many of us can reflect on those devastating fires in 1994 that affected the Royal National Park and can recall the impact the fires had not only on the ecology and the fauna but also on the general lives of people in the Sutherland Shire. The fires that started on Christmas Day 2001 impacted for a series of other reasons. They impacted because it was Christmas; that was the first thing. In that true spirit of volunteerism that Australians are renowned for, people literally downed their knives and forks at their Christmas meals on Christmas Day to pull on those yellow and orange suits. They joined the volunteer fire service as part of the emergency services and got down and dirty for their local communities. Many of those folk went away from their homes, from their kids and from other loved ones for considerable periods of time. They did not just go out and do one shift; some of them were away for about a week or so.

Dr MARTIN —Many of them were out there for even longer, as my friend the member for Hume rightly pointed out. Many of them were suffering sleep deprivation because of the intensity of the fire, the circumstances in which these fires had broken out and the very unusual weather patterns that affected our part of the world over that Christmas-New Year period. All of these things contributed to extremely dangerous conditions. It is in the light of that knowledge that we can but look on in awe at the way in which ordinary people literally put their lives at risk for their communities and for others. As the intensity of the fire and the difficulties became well and truly known, we sought assistance from Elvis, a genuinely mechanised approach to fighting fires. The goodwill spread across the states. We saw firefighters from Tasmania, from South Australia, from Queensland and from Victoria.

Mr Schultz —True Australian spirit!

Dr MARTIN —It was the true Australian spirit on display. The firefighters did not know each other, but they became mates as a result of what happened. The second fire in our area was the Burke River fire. It started on Christmas Eve and burnt towards Wollongong on Christmas Day. Some 46,000 hectares were burnt out. In this particular case, no property was lost but it did burn out a significant portion of the metropolitan catchment area. In the Appin Road fire, which I mentioned initially, 10 homes and numerous buildings in the Helensburgh and Stanwell Tops area were lost. The Stanwell Tops Christian Centre also suffered incredible damage.

About five days after the fires had gone through, I visited many of those parts of my electorate, accompanied by Jenny Macklin, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. The devastation was incredible to see, and stories of the heroics of individuals came out. Equally, the way in which fire—a part of nature—affected some areas was incredible to witness. If you drove down one street you might see a reserve that had been totally burnt out and a house that was still standing, next to that house another one burnt to the ground and right next to that house another one left standing. You marvel as to how this could happen—how the forces of nature conspired to such an extent that one particular house in a row was burnt to the ground and others were left standing.

When you talk to the people from the Rural Fire Service, the police and the emergency services, you get a feeling for what it was actually like on the ground when that fire was racing through the gullies and bush areas at the back of Helensburgh and Stanwell Park and so on. You appreciate that fire is not discriminating; it can randomly select places to devastate while at other times it can just blow over other areas. What Jenny Macklin and I saw was the devastation of the Stanwell Tops Christian Centre. All around the bush had been burnt and the Christian centre had been devastated, yet at the end of the cul-de-sac there was a house owned by Bob and Clare Proudfoot—a couple of friends of mine—where the back garden shed had been singed by flames but that was it; the house was saved.

At the time we were there, power had been restored and the telecommunications system was gradually coming back. Again, this highlights the way in which some of those emergency services, the energy providers, the telecommunications providers and so on equally rallied to the task after the event. Integral Energy was given support by a range of other energy providers to make sure that lines were strung up again, that energy was restored, that the quality of drinking water was restored—the pump and filtration system for Helensburgh had stopped because of the fires; health risks were considered, but fortunately everything was given the all clear.

Another important thing was that in all the confusion, when all the volunteers were doing this fabulous job for their local communities, various media reports were coming through about what had happened and any piece of information was being put out as though it were gospel. I was told, for example, that Symbio animal park was burnt to the ground and all the animals there had similarly suffered that fate. In fact, because of the action of the volunteers—the Rural Fire Service at Stanwell Park and at Helensburgh, with the assistance of other brigades—that important tourist attraction in Helensburgh was saved.

I think it is important that we do pay tribute to the likes of the brigades and particular individuals, and I would like to do that in the last couple of minutes. Jenny and I, as we talked to some of these people, could not help but be impressed by the spirit of the people whose houses were touched by fire but also by the spirit of the volunteers themselves—these men and women who had had little sleep over a long period of time. A high level of bravery was shown by them all on Christmas Day and in subsequent weeks. The Stanwell Park Brigade worked particularly hard. Their truck was out of the area assisting with other fires on the day, so the brigade loaded up their Land Cruiser Troop Carrier and fought the fire using hoses from the town water supply. To Gary Lake, the captain of the Stanwell Park Brigade, and his crew, we salute them. I knew a guy Sammy Blackwell, a community member, back in the good old days when I used to referee rugby league. The police came to his house and said, `Sam, my son, it's time to go. The fires are getting a bit close.' Sam said, as only Sam would, `No, I am terribly sorry, officer. I don't intend to do that.' He grabbed some hoses and with a couple of neighbours he fought back the flames from neighbours' property. That is the nature of the community spirit that we are all talking about in this debate today.

It was a team effort by all the agencies and the services involved—the fire agencies, the welfare agencies, the animal rescue people, the SES, the police; they all did a terrific job. People were told to evacuate. They went into the Helensburgh town centre. They were looked after at the Helensburgh Workmans Club. Again, I take my hat off to the directors of that particular organisation. They were prepared to open their hearts and their premises to look after folks who were told to leave their homes. At that time of the year a lot of people were on holidays, and they got the message from family and friends, `The fires are coming and we don't know about your house.' As they tried to drive back they were stopped on the highways because it was too dangerous to go through. As you travel that highway between Sydney and Wollongong today and look at what was bushland everywhere, you see it blackened and you can see the old bush rock and you can make the gullies out—you probably did not know they were there. I think we can never underestimate the effect that something like this had on people's lives and their psyche.

When Jenny Macklin and I were there, we went into one of the shops in Helensburgh and she was talking to a woman with her child who said, `Look, you have to understand. My daughter, who is about five or six years old, simply won't be on her own; she's not prepared to be by herself even in her own house now—and she draws pictures of the fire coming towards Helensburgh.' They are the sorts of deep-seated difficulties that we must recognise have been ingrained particularly in the minds of young people, but not necessarily just the young. It is well and good to be full of bravado and say we live in a sunburnt land and bushfires are part of the everyday scene—they are, but they are not necessarily part of that everyday scene in quasi-urban areas. But what we saw on Christmas Day clearly put lie to that particular myth.

Joe Scimone, an engineer at Wollongong City Council and one of my closest mates, was dragged away from a family Christmas Day to go in because he is in charge, from the Wollongong City Council's perspective, of running their emergency services centre. He was the guy who was in with the police emergency service, Rural Fire Service and so on at their command centre, running the rescue effort, the firefighting effort et cetera. He put in a lot of time, a lot of hours. But he was one of many. He was one of many of the local police, the commanders, the people from the Rural Fire Service and so on. I think it is appropriate that a motion of this nature be moved in the parliament so that these people do understand that their work does not go unrecognised. Of course it has been recognised. In Wollongong a couple of Sundays ago, there was a street parade and a belated arrival of Santa Claus for the bushfire brigade people and the Rural Fire Service people et cetera. This was put on by Wollongong City Council just to show the appreciation to these folks.

It is always nice when we come together as a parliament to consider a motion that no-one can find fault with. And I think in our broader lives, we know that on occasions like this, when there is devastation caused by natural disaster, we see the best being brought out in people. So, on behalf of my local community of Wollongong, I would like to publicly place on record my thanks and the thanks of everyone in our community for the outstanding work that all of these folk did on Christmas Day and on subsequent days. They clearly demonstrated what volunteerism is about; they clearly demonstrated what mateship is all about; they clearly demonstrated what they were prepared to forgo on behalf of our local community. I pay tribute to Phil Koperberg. I pay tribute to all of those emergency services—the Rural Fire Service, the police et cetera. They all did us proud over this very difficult period, and I think it is appropriate and right that the parliament recognises them in this way. (Time expired)