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Tuesday, 10 February 2009
Page: 834

Dr JENSEN (6:27 PM) —I do not think anyone in this House or anyone in this country can have failed to be moved and deeply saddened by the scale of this tragedy. I guess fortunately, I no longer reside in Victoria—I used to live there—and thus I have not experienced firsthand the scale of this tragedy. But I cannot fail to be moved by the stories I read of the personal tragedies. It is those personal stories that almost always bring a tragedy where a lot of people have died back to a personal level where you can actually appreciate what is occurring. I have three children and I think the saddest stories of all are those that involve children. It would have to be devastating to have children die. With adults it is a tragedy, but with children who have barely embarked on their lives it is so much worse.

I lived in Victoria during the time of the Ash Wednesday fires. I think there would not be a Melburnian who was there on the night of those fires who would not remember the thick smoke that engulfed the city. I was working in Richmond at the time, doing part-time work, and I caught a train to go back to Mount Waverley. It was surreal, going through the very thick smoke that went for kilometre after kilometre. I can only imagine what people are experiencing at the moment.

I also note how absolutely fickle life and death can be. I joined the CFA in the late 1990s and was a volunteer with them for a few years before going to Western Australia. I was a member of the Ocean Grove brigade, which is very close to Geelong. Some members may remember the tragedy near Linton when two fire trucks went to fight a fire and one of them was hit by a fireball, which killed five people. That fire truck came from Geelong West Fire Brigade. I mention this because it relates to how chance can be involved in tragedies like this. At air shows in Australia the local CFA brigades man a lot of the firefighting equipment, and at the Avalon air show I was on one of the trucks. There was a mix of people from different brigades there, and one of them was from the Geelong West brigade—the brigade that had lost five people. This person related to me how the truck had been ready to move when his wife drove up with their kids. She said: ‘I have to go to work now. You’re going to have to look after the kids.’ That meant he hopped off the truck and someone else hopped on. Life and death can be that fickle.

The tragedy with fires, very often, is that lessons are learned but are very quickly forgotten. With the Ash Wednesday fires and so many other fires the findings invariably have been: you need to reduce the burden of fuel in the area. When I was living in Victoria, my wife and I bought a block of land in Anglesey, which was an area that had been very hard-hit by Ash Wednesday. The block of land we bought backed onto Angahook national park. The problem was that the only area of the block that we were allowed to clear was the specific area where we were going to put the slab down; the rest of it had to stay. That was 15 short years after Ash Wednesday. The Ash Wednesday inquiry had found that there should be significant reductions in fuel and certainly clearing around residences. This had been forgotten by the council. I do not want to apportion blame—it is not our job—but I would urge that this time we act on the lessons we learn, even if that means making hard decisions.

The thing I remember about joining the Country Fire Authority is the camaraderie that I had with that group of people. I can say with utter certainty that they were the single best group of people that I was ever involved with. They were people from all walks of life. I was a research scientist at the time, but there were tradesmen there, there were labourers, there was the owner of the local caravan park—a huge variety of people, which in effect was a microcosm of Australia itself. These people were all incredibly selfless—in other areas as well, not just firefighting. I remember that with the CFA you had a pager, like we have pagers here. Your pager would go off in the middle of the night and it was almost a race to get to the fire station first so that you could be on the first fire truck. It was like a competition. People desperately wanted to go and help. That attitude of volunteerism is something that holds Australia in such a great position. Those people really are the backbone of our country.

I recall that some of the people in the CFA were not exactly well off; in fact, they were quite badly off, yet they were putting all of their personal time and effort into volunteering. I wondered why people could not be given a little bit of assistance. I am not talking about everyone. I did not need it, but some really did need a little bit of assistance just for running a car to get from home to the fire station and back. There really should be support for these volunteers. They are not asking for pay or anything like that. In fact, they are not asking for anything, but I think they should be supported.

Something else I found when I was fighting fires, for people who have never fought fires or never been in major fires, was that the smoke is something you would not believe. You really cannot see and it is incredibly easy to become completely disoriented. It is all very well having a chart in front of you when you are driving through bush showing trails and so on, but if you do not know where you are and it is very easy to get lost, that makes things really problematic. In my view, GPS these days is ubiquitous. In Europe and parts of the United States now you have GPS units which not only give you directions for where you need to go but also there is real-time sharing of information so that it can direct you around traffic snarls. Why can we not initiate GPS units for those fire trucks that go into dangerous situations, where they can have all of the firebreaks, tracks and so on mapped and can get real-time information about what track is blocked, so that they can make adjustments? I guess you could have an emergency button to hit which would signal, ‘Get me out of here by the quickest means possible,’ and it would give you a route straightaway.

Another thing I think we should examine, something used in the United States, is fixed-wing water bombers. We do not have them here, but we need to have fixed-wing water bombers. I know the argument will be one about expense, but in the United States the insurance industry pays for those water bombers and pays for the running of them. There is a significant benefit to the insurance industry in having water bombers, because insurance companies do not have to pay out as much. Effectively, in purely revenue terms, this is revenue neutral, but in terms of human suffering they could be extremely beneficial. The thing you learn with firefighting is to attack early and to attack hard. If you can catch a fire right at the beginning you nip it in the bud; but if you wait for the thing to grow you get to a situation where you cannot put the fire out.

I would like to finish up by reiterating how extremely sad I am personally about what has happened and the scale of the human tragedy. I have to say that I have not been more proud of this parliament than the way it has behaved in the last couple of days and the attitude of all members to the scale of this human tragedy.