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Thursday, 3 February 1994
Page: 278

Mr PETER MORRIS (10.28 a.m.) —I am honoured to be able to join in supporting this motion this morning and to support the remarks of previous speakers and the mover of the motion that is before us this morning. I would like to say at the outset that everyone in this place feels for the families of the four persons who lost their lives. We cannot adequately express our feeling upon what they must have experienced and what they are going through subsequently. We also pay tribute to the incredible efforts, the endurance of thousands of firefighters and all those people associated in backing them up that prevented what could have been an unmitigated disaster in terms of loss of life and loss of property.

  This morning we pay tribute to the volunteers, the fire brigade regulars of New South Wales and those that came from interstate, including police and the defence forces. We include the council workers from each of the councils but, particularly in my electorate, Lake Macquarie and Wyong councils. Our tribute is extended, in fact, to everyone who played a role and made a contribution towards containing the fires and protecting the lives and property of the people that were affected.

  The bushfires had been burning in various locations in New South Wales since Boxing Day. The media had been referring constantly to the fires at Newcastle, but they were actually around the southern area. At the time the fires really came to a crescendo, those that were of great danger to us were the fires in Lake Macquarie, which had very little to do with Newcastle. There was some angst among quite a number of people that the media constantly referred to fires in Newcastle when in fact they were in Lake Macquarie and Wyong. But the fires themselves brought with them the prospect, as I said, of unmitigated disaster.

  The baking weather—I can think of no other words to describe it—added to that prospect. As a child I lived on a farm, and every summer we experienced bushfires and every summer we fought bushfires with wet bags and branches and a little bit of well water—we did not have resources—but the weather in which the fire crescendo developed I just found quite incredible. Day after day brought more baking type of heat, together with strong winds.

  The fires in the Hunter region brought out the best and the worst in people, to use the words of the Prime Minister (Mr Keating). The best was seen in the firefighters, their supporters, the volunteers, all the other organisations I have mentioned and the ordinary men and women and young people of our region who helped supply back-up materials, food, water, cold drinks and even cold fruit—sustenance for those who were working unceasingly.

  The worst in people produced a fear of looting and the inexplicable acts of those who lit fires. That I just cannot comprehend. Reference is made to increasing penalties in dealing with that issue but I just do not comprehend the actions of those people.

  We speak from some experience in the Hunter because those of us who experienced the earthquake on 28 December 1989 know something of the fear and the helplessness that people feel when a disaster like this happens. The earthquake also brought out the best in people, in particular that great Australian spirit. It brought people together and galvanised community spirit. This occurred, only on a much broader scale, with the bushfires. The best in people was evident in that community of interest, that Australian spirit, where all people were pulling together, all were getting in to help, regardless of what differences there may be among people on other occasions.

  Reference has been made to the need for better firefighting equipment and firebombing amphibious planes. They are matters that are going to be looked at by the New South Wales government and those who are directly involved in the administration of that area. But in my own electorate of Shortland we had fires at the northern extremity and the southern extremity: at Charlestown, Windale, Bennetts Green, Belmont, Caves Beach and Budgewoi. Fortunately, there was no loss of life. Fires were dealt with quickly by the fire brigades. There was minimum damage and loss of property.

  There were great fears during the fires until they were brought under control and the emergency had passed, but there was minimum damage and loss of property, with two home units being destroyed at Charlestown and some commercial property being damaged at Bennetts Green. In that case a fire had been lit on the opposite side of a divided carriageway, leapt across the divided carriageway, setting fire to and destroying a wrecker's yard. It then moved on to the upstairs portion of commercial premises. At Budgewoi a fire came close to threatening the town itself. That fire lasted some four to five hours. The firefighters, I believe, performed an amazing job to contain it and to extinguish it. The residents of the nearby streets and the Walu caravan park had to be evacuated.

  One thing about these fires was that, even close in, in Charlestown—where my own office is situated and where I live, virtually in inner suburbia—wherever you have the wildlife reserves and the nature reserves in the bottom parts of gullies, fires just raced through with terrifying speed and height. The fact is that the flames were transferring at tree-top level: it was not the burning along the ground that was transferring the fire; it was the airborne debris and embers that were transferring the fires from location to location. The speed with which the fire moved and the blanketing of the air by smoke were what was so terrifying. All of those anxieties and worries that people went through are very hard to describe. Now, some weeks after the event, it is difficult to recall, for other people who did not experience it, just how terrifying it was and what people suffered.

  Whilst the supreme efforts and bravery of firemen and volunteer bush fire brigade people have been justly praised, we should not forget the other volunteers who helped. In my area, the Salvation Army had responsibility for preparation of food; at Toukley, they called in the Society of St Vincent De Paul to help make sandwiches for several thousand people. Many of those people were people referred to by the previous speaker, the honourable member for Berowra (Mr Ruddock), and they had been stranded on the national highway link. Those people either could not get onto the highway or could not get off it, so they had to be fed and accommodated. Many of them were helped at Wyong racecourse, in the electorate of Dobell.

  There was an enormous spontaneous effort from people: in fact, I think there were probably more people around who were willing to help than had need of help. Camp Breakaway at San Remo provided accommodation for firefighters from interstate. The Wyong Shire Advocate of 20 January describes it thus:

The mateship tradition of Australians helping each other in crisis was no more evident during the recent bushfires disaster than at San Remo's Camp Breakaway.

I think that pretty aptly describes numbers of incidents and efforts throughout the whole area in which the bushfires were located. Questions have been raised subsequently about back-burning, fire prevention and how much effort was made by householders themselves, and about the surrounding foliage. They are all questions that need to be addressed, but the question of back-burning would perhaps be probably best resolved by an open inquiry headed up by the CSIRO.

  Some erroneous fire reports added to people's fears and anxieties on a number of occasions during the period of what I describe as the crescendo—those days of raging fires. I do not criticise the media. I understand that people were phoning in to the media and saying that such and such a place was alight, and that such and such a place had been evacuated—when, in fact, that had not happened at all. Why people do those things, I do not know.

  It is difficult, when you are in a time of crisis such as that. When the earthquake happened in Newcastle, we had a similar thing. There were all sorts of stories suddenly peddled around. People were ringing up and advising, many of them erroneously. That is something that I think added to the worry and to the fear.

  The Acting Prime Minister was quickly on the scene. I was very pleased with the rapid cooperation between the federal government and the New South Wales government. Aged people were moved from areas that were threatened, and Department of Social Services assistance and emergency payments were quickly made available. It was an excellent example, when we had a disaster and we had a problem, of both governments rapidly coming together to help the people at risk.

  All the things we have been saying this morning are probably best summed up in the words of the editorial of the Newcastle Herald of 11 January, which said:

Of course, all the issues brought to light by the bushfire crisis deserve urgent attention and some will no doubt prove contentious. Happily, though, the matter of greatest priority is anything but factious, that being to express the heartfelt gratitude of the people of this State to the volunteers, fire brigade regulars, police, ambulance officers, defence forces and others who appear to have averted a tragedy of unthinkable proportions.

I am very honoured to be able to support the motion before the chamber.