CONDOLENCES - Australian Bushfires

February 04, 2020

I too wish to add my remarks to the condolence motion regarding the unprecedented bushfires that have had an impact on so many parts of Australia. We acknowledge the devastation, the loss of life and the ongoing impact on families and communities from the bushfires. Talking to people since being back in Canberra and the impact that it has and continues to have locally, I have spoken to many Canberra residents, particularly those who have a connection to the South Coast. The impact of the bushfire season for them has been something that has lasted weeks and, indeed, now months.

I pay tribute to those who have been on the frontline and to those volunteering. What an amazing sacrifice, particularly given it has been occurring over a period when many of us enjoy spending time with our families and loved ones. This has been such a long and devastating bushfire season. I was in Bundaberg in mid-November and was briefed by the mayor, Jack Dempsey, and the deputy mayor, Bill Trevor, on fires that had been impacting on their community in the days beforehand. They were fortunate in that there was no loss of life or property, but I was back in Bundaberg last week and the mayor informed me of the ongoing recovery efforts that have been taking place up there since November.

We also saw fires in Pechey, near Toowoomba, that burnt through nearly 20,000 hectares and destroyed six houses. The Peregian Beach area on the Sunshine Coast was impacted, along with Stanthorpe, Mareeba, Yeppoon and Beechmont in Queensland. Overall, there were a total of 42 state emergencies declared across local government areas in Queensland. The Queensland Fire and Emergency Services Acting Chief Superintendent Kevin Reading said, 'The vegetation will dry out again and the fire risk will continue.' Mr Reading, who has worked at the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services for 15 years, said that he hasn't seen a season like it. So I would like to put on record my thanks to the volunteers across Queensland and emergency services personnel for their work over the last couple of months.

In more recent weeks the images from New South Wales, Victoria, and Kangaroo Island in South Australia have obviously made an impact on the broader Australian community. We mourn the loss of life. The loss of the three American aircrew is a devastating reminder of the international efforts that have gone into fighting these fires from across the world. Communities have no doubt been left wanting answers. Part of Senator Wong's speech today was important in showing, I think, what the future will look like. Senator Wong referred to her speech from 2009 in the Senate, where she said this:

… we are also likely to see an increase in very extreme fire weather days. That is one of the effects of climate change that was documented again by the Bushfire CRC, the Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO in 2007, when they said that very extreme fire weather days now occur on average once every two to 11 years at most sites, by 2020 they may occur twice as often and by 2050 they may occur four to five times as often.

So we have been warned about these bushfires becoming more regular.

There was one article that I read in January that has stayed with me over the last couple of weeks. It appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald on 8 January 2020. It's by Amelia McGuire. The article details the effort of Terry Snow in defending his own private equestrian centre. Mr Snow did not evacuate but stayed to defend his property. The area that we're talking about is on the New South Wales South Coast. I will just read out a couple of parts of the article, because I think it's important. This is a quote from Mr Snow:

We weren't naive, we'd been expecting and preparing for years and always engaged a fire consultant. We followed his advice to the letter and were so grateful that we did.

The article says, about Mr Snow:

… the 77-year-old's intricate fire plan has also been credited as part of the reason the nearby coastal town of Bawley Point escaped annihilation in the firestorm that swept through the region last month.

It goes on to say:

As the fire bore down on his property, Mr Snow, whose net worth is valued at approximately $1.6 billion by Forbes, used a fleet of privately owned machinery to protect his business.

"We had a big loader to run along the ground and remove debris [along fire trails]," he said.

Mr Snow's team was also able to use two large water trucks with a combined capacity of 2300 litres.

"We had 10-15 employees on rotation to ensure the fire line was always covered," he said.

Willinga Park—

which is the name of the property—

was also supported by multiple sources of emergency power Mr Snow built on the property after he bought it in 2002, including a 500-kilowatt solar system, a 2.1 kWh Tesla battery storage system, and diesel generators spread across three engines.

…   …   …

Mr Snow said the park's preparedness meant the RFS was able to concentrate on other properties under threat in the area, but also provided protection to Bawley Point.

…   …   …

Shoalhaven mayor Amanda Findley believes it was a combined effort, saying the "heroic" efforts of the RFS, Willinga Park's "significant private firefighting capacity" and Bawley's residents saved the town.

I don't for one second begrudge Mr Snow for what he did. He obviously has the resources to do it and is very protective of his property. But, as the warnings say, these fires are becoming more prevalent. We can't become a society where your ability to defend your property depends on your wealth. I believe this is an issue that the royal commission needs to consider if it is actually going to make a thorough effort to look at the bushfire crisis over recent months.

Once again I put on record the devastation and loss of life. I acknowledge the ongoing impact that this is going to have on families and communities, and I wish those communities all the best in their recovery efforts.