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Tuesday, 12 February 2013
Page: 1025

Mrs MIRABELLA (Indi) (21:59): As I stand here right now there is a fire burning out of control near the foot of Mount Hotham, just above the small and beautiful village of Harrietville in my electorate of Indi. A recent inspection of the CFA website also indicates that the fire, which started on 21 January as a result of a lightning strike, is currently covering an area greater than 27,000 hectares.

From discussions I have had with locals in the last week I am led to believe that this fire could have been extinguished within a day or two. I am advised that, by around 8pm on the night of the 21st, the fire had been successfully contained by local CFA volunteers and was covering an area no larger than approximately five hectares. I am told that it was around this time that DSE fire crews stood down the CFA volunteers, despite the fact the fire had not been completely extinguished.

Upon being stood down, the CFA reported the fire to be safe, controlled and contained without further incident. I am told that the DSE were using two bulldozers to create a control line. One of these dozers was sent in the wrong direction and was lost for approximately one hour and the other broke down. There are reports that suggested this bulldozer had actually fallen off the vehicle trailer some two months earlier and should never have been at the scene in the first place. The decision to stand down CFA volunteers was apparently made by one incident controller from the DSE and I am advised that other DSE officers had voiced their frustration at this decision.

Clearly, something has gone terribly wrong here. It appears that this fire should never have got to the point that it has. As it stands, the economic losses in Harrietville alone total, to date, around $500,000. It is also estimated that the management of this fire is costing around $1 million a day.

I have in front of me a series of questions that require an urgent response from the DSE. These are some of the questions which are being asked by locals in Harrietville. Were sufficient resources initially deployed to a fire that clearly had the capacity to cause significant harm? Why were CFA crews stood down when containment was not complete? Who made the decision and was this the correct decision to make in hindsight? Was there a night watch team employed to monitor the fire? At what time on Tuesday morning did the DSE crews return to the fire? At what time was the dozer used to complete containment lines? Was the bulldozer in an appropriate condition to be used to combat this fire?

Two years ago I stood in this place and made a plea to governments and departments to listen to people who live in bushfire-prone areas and not to ignore local knowledge, local folk, when it comes to managing these areas and fighting fires because, as I said at the time, they know what they are doing and we need to take that local knowledge into account in the event of future bushfire disasters and the like. The situation is no different from the fires that raged in north-east Victoria for 60 days back in 2003. Again, Harrietville, the same town, was besieged by fires for many days. It was during those early days that, as the member for Indi, I experienced firsthand the extraordinary knowledge of locals who have lived, experienced and fought fires and how they were ignored and their extraordinary frustration. There were over 200 submissions from my electorate to the parliamentary inquiry that followed those fires and that was significant, considering it was a national inquiry with over 500 submissions.

So I feel very deeply the local anxiety and anger because, to ignore local advice in these situations is not just arrogant but foolish, and it appears once again that we may be living with the economic consequences of this foolishness. It is of no comfort to those who run businesses and who are losing money every day. On behalf of the residents of Harrietville I will be writing to the Victorian Minister for Bushfire Response, seeking a response to these questions, as I have done in the past to other ministers.