East Gippsland bushfires

Ms BATH (Eastern Victoria) (11:43): Today is a sad day. It is a day that this house, this chamber, this Parliament, recognises the loss of so many. It is a solemn day and it is a day where we need to acknowledge as a sad privilege and tenderly place in Hansard in the Victorian Parliament the names of five loved ones, five Victorians who have passed away as a result of these fires raging through the eastern part of our state.

The north-east of Victoria, and particularly East Gippsland in my electorate, has been bashed and bruised and damaged and torn apart. In recognising the fires this summer, I also want to take a moment to recognise the 2009 fires and recognise the 173 people who lost their lives and their families, who still live with that hole in their heart and that hole in their family tree 11 years on. On behalf of The Nationals I want to put on record my humble respects and acknowledgement of the Black Saturday fires and also the Ash Wednesday fires, which are seared in my young memory, and those that lost their lives in them as well.

To date we grieve for five Victorians, and I hope I can say that there will be no more. We would love to say that that is the case. We pay recognition to their loved ones at their time of grief and offer sincere condolences.

Now, we know that the fires started around the middle of November last year from lightning strikes in that remote and mountainous terrain in East Gippsland. Accessibility is quite a challenge in those regions, and approximately 150 fires sprung up like a bad dream across that landscape. Over time and in those conditions those fires merged and grew and more fires came about through lightning strikes. Now we see under present-day circumstances over 1.5 million hectares have been burnt out.

In East Gippsland—in those dry, windy, smoke-filled, fuel-rich, rugged environments—contractors went in to provide support and create containment lines. One such gentleman was David Moresi. He was working at the time in the Gelantipy and W Tree environment when his vehicle rolled over and he tragically died in the process. Recently The Nationals went up to Gelantipy to do some fence rebuilding or fence demolishing with farmers up that way, and I noticed that that terrain is often exceedingly steep. There are firebreaks put in, certainly, but also trees line the road in that space. And that is the region in which this gentleman was so bravely working with his team.

There is no higher recommendation than to be called an inspirational human being at your funeral. We can only aspire to that. There is no higher recommendation than being called a pillar in your community, as David was. He was a skilled bushman and also a loving family man, and we acknowledge the pain that his wife, Judi, and three children, Kelly, Luke and Nathan, are going through at this point in time.

In the Buchan area I note that Mick Roberts passed away. He was a grandfather, 67 years old, and he was found in his home. It is a very sad start to the year for his family. He was a cattleman, and he loved his 450-acre farm. He leaves behind his family: a daughter, stepdaughter, stepson, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We are reliably informed that he was a character, and Buchan has its characters. East Gippsland thrives on characters and people with integrity and with individuality, and he was one such man. It is commented too that he was a great storyteller. I am sure he had many stories in the Buchan pub and it would ring with the memories of his great stories.

It is with great sadness that we speak today about Bill Slade. He passed away in a fire at Anglers Rest up near Omeo. I had the privilege last year of visiting Anglers Rest and that area and walking to O’Connell’s lookout up there. It is truly a beautiful place but truly inaccessible and dangerous in a fire situation. Bill was a man of passion. He was a man who loved his environment, loved his family, loved his sport, was loyal and was always thinking of others. We recognise his poor family now as they have to go on without him.

Mat Kavanagh was a 43-year-old member of the forest management crew, and he had been for many years. I am finding this quite challenging actually, because when we put this in Hansard and we gently rest them in Hansard, we understand that their family has a missing space in their home, at their kitchen table and in their bed. He died as a young man, leaving a family behind and two young children, and we acknowledge the wonderful contribution he made to his community.

Lastly there is Fred Becker, an East Gippslander, a man whose family had been in the Genoa region for many, many, many years. Indeed his father, Alex Becker, was known to have established the sawmill in that region. This community will mourn his loss.

We also mourn the loss of the three American fire agents who came over here. They were put on the plane, their families kissed them, they came to help the Aussies and, unfortunately with a tragic accident, they cannot return home.

We also acknowledge on a broader level all of the good people whose lives have been lost in other parts of the country into New South Wales. I know my colleague Danny O’Brien was having a few days in Bermagui at the time. He kept relating to us, when he could, when there was connection there, the abysmal conditions that he was looking at across the way—the red sky and the danger they faced. So our interstate neighbours have been doing it tough as well.

There are no winners in this devastating fire, but there are an infinite number of stories of heroic deeds, kind deeds and generous acts. There are experts in the field. Experts can be the local baker. Experts can be the timber harvester or the CFA they range across the board. They have saved homes, they have kept their communities safe. They have protected life and property, and they have protected livestock where they could. They have rescued and treated injured wildlife, they have cleared access corridors and they have protected road users. They have created vital links of communication.

I note Loretta Willaton in my patch has been a constant, I guess, turntable person down in the Bairnsdale incident control centre, communicating needs in order to keep communications open. People are frustrated from time to time—that is totally understandable—but I know that she and her team have worked hard. Our first responders have also treated wounds. They are people who really attend and attack the problems of those in need.

I also want to acknowledge the work of the ICCs, the incident control centres, in East Gippsland: Peter West; John Crane, as a vegetation management officer who has been on communications; and so many of those other layers within that department. It is truly like a beehive, and there are worker bees from the front desk to the back room working and coordinating in a most exemplary way. There certainly are across the board an amalgamation of talents there.

I would like to acknowledge the wonderful work of our emergency services workers—the CFA volunteers and staff, the SES, Forest Fire Management Victoria—and of course all of them are dealing in a collective way. To all those CFA brigades and stations from across Gippsland and the state who have committed strike teams, individuals, tankers and equipment, I thank you from the bottom of my heart, and others do too. Driving back and forth to East Gippsland, I noted that Stratford had these wonderful signs pinned to the bowling club, ‘SES, we love you. CFA, we love you’, in a most wonderfully symbolic way for them to note on the way through. Volunteers certainly are the backbone of our communities, and they deserve our respect.

I say to each and every member of the CFA who has worked tirelessly to protect lives and property, it is a tough job. There is no glory there. There is only work, sweat and quite often fear. One of the pictures I saw, I think it was from New South Wales, was when a fire came over the CFA trucks. I am not sure where it was, to be truthful, but I could not believe the ferocity of the fire. The way they calmly got into their trucks and filmed that was just amazing. They got out and started again. This is something I doubt I would have the courage to do, but they do it and they do it with skill and commitment. To that point, there have been 15 CFA volunteers’ homes lost while they were out defending life and property. I think that really needs to be acknowledged—‘While I’m saving your house, my house burns down’.

I thank Mark Dryden from Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria. He will coordinate with me—I would like to do this—a lovely example of support for those first 15. A gentleman called Andrew Graham from Traralgon H Hardware has coordinated what we call relief kit packs. They are the things that you miss when your shed is burnt and incinerated—the rake, the tinsnips, the shovel, the saw et cetera. He is coordinating it as a gift that people can donate. He is coordinating that with three other hardware stores in Mallacoota, Lakes Entrance and Orbost, I believe. People can go in and purchase them, and they will go to those affected. I hope that this house will accept my decision to give those to the CFA volunteers who have lost their homes, and after that I am working with the East Gippsland council to work out where they go. These sorts of things are exemplary.

Folk like me who have listened to the VicEmergency app—it went ‘Ping, ping, ping’ for weeks and weeks—watched with such concern as those exclamation marks went from yellow to red in so very many places.

I want to acknowledge VicPol, who were doing an amazing job; the ambulance paramedics; the Red Cross; and particularly the bush nursing staff. I was up at Swifts Creek recently talking to Sue Carroll and her reliever Jacinta, and I could not be a nurse for quids. There were stories that they were telling me anonymously about folk coming in with burns—very substantial burns. They were fighting on their farms to keep their animals safe and protect their homes. They have seen an increase in mental health concerns, injuries and burns. They deserve our respect, but they also deserve additional resources to cope. They deserve additional funding. They work on the smell of an oily rag, and it is really important that all of government and state government support them in their endeavours to stay open but also commit to their community.

We have to mention wildlife and the great shame, the great pity and the great loss of our flora as well as our fauna. In the immediate days post that visit I was chatting to some VicPol officers. I will not name them, but they were in the ICC in Bairnsdale. They spoke of how in their day job they are Victoria Police officers but in the after hours they run a wildlife rescue station in Lucknow. What a wonderful job they were doing. Also, the Wellington shire animal aid came to the aid of many, many animals. They funded it themselves largely with some great macropod food and wildlife food that I had the privilege of taking up to Bruthen. We did a swap over at a road because I could not get in there, and VicPol were there to help use their muscles to get that stock out. But it is the people on the ground there who really commit to the betterment of the wildlife, and I congratulate them.

It is hard to comprehend the statistics of the destruction that this fire has caused—405 residential properties and 650 non-residential structures like sheds, shops and garages—through Sarsfield, Clifton Creek, Mossiface, Tambo, Buchan, Club Terrace and Mallacoota, where they have lost roughly 127 homes in that area. Indeed it is etched in all of our memories, I am sure, the photo of that beautiful lady who moved her child out in the boat and that blood-red sky. That is just a horrific thing for people to go through.

I have been talking with Mark Tregellas on a number of occasions, and only yesterday he wanted to impress the fact that the Mallacoota folk talk about community helping community and that the Mallacoota recovery site has been a real conduit for, one, need but also response, and also, as we well know, the fact that the ADF have gone in there and done such a magnificent job. But it is also about recognising the local shops and essential services, the fuel service station. They did it tough. We respect the work that they did, and we want to support them going forward. We acknowledge the pharmacists, and I also want to acknowledge the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, who have done an amazing job in getting supplies and prescriptions in where they are needed. It cannot be understated too the contribution of those who have worked to get our roads opened, and I will speak more about that later.

Saying that we went up to Gelantipy and having near misses, I just want to relate something quite inspirational but also a miracle. There is a lovely lady up past Gelantipy near Seldom Seen called Marge Woodhouse. She is in her 80s. She has three daughters, and I met one of them the other day there, Wendy Barlow. The house stayed, the chickens and the chicken coop stayed and the prized horses that they love stayed, but the shed was burnt down only metres from that home, and no-one was there. They exited, but it was an absolute miracle, and it was a privilege to meet her. They are Gippslanders and proud and passionate, and she will rebuild that. We need support for her to go in there as well.

The stock losses: there have been many instances where we have spoken to constituents who are fraught with worry about their stock being in a different location that cannot be accessed and are worried about their wellbeing. A farmer is never happy, a farmer is never content, until he knows that his stock are safe, and this has not been the case. But on the flip side, hasn’t it been magnificent—absolutely magnificent—the outpouring and the support of other farms and farmers in terms of fodder relief and hay?

We have seen the most wonderful procession of large transports laden with hay from across the state. I know in South Gippsland certainly and in western Gippsland, but also right across the state into western Victoria, they have marched. I want to acknowledge certainly BlazeAid but Need for Feed as well. They have done an amazing job. It brings the spirit up when you see them in Orbost, with their great loads, going up into Cann River and beyond.

There is one such example where there was a coordinated effort from Tasmania. A group of people organised for a semitrailer load to come over on the Spirit of Tasmania. It was coordinated through Bairnsdale stock agents. I will not name them individually, but I really want to acknowledge that.

Also there is one person that I will acknowledge, Mal Lees, from the Bairnsdale stockyards. I do not know that he has slept in about four weeks. He was tremendous at coordinating the stock, the animals, the horses and the pets that arrived in that region, and coordinating feed going out. These are the types of heroes that come to the fore and stand on the frontline under such circumstances.

What we have known and what we do know is that farmers have struggled. Speaking with farmers at Wiseleigh and Clifton Creek, Mark Laity and Ron Connell, their concern has been their farms have bounded state park, state forest or Crown land. They ask the government to be a good neighbour and ask the government to make sure that there is a buffer zone between where their fence finishes and where the vegetation starts within those state boundaries. What has been happening is that there has been such limited space that in fact the fire only burns out when it reaches the paddocks, which have been quite chewed down through this drought as well. So they are asking that there be a buffer zone, and this actually has to happen. That will protect our stock and also save costly fences.

We are pleased that the state government has listened to our requests and come on board in terms of the subsidies for boundary fences. This is important. They are neighbours, and neighbours should share the costs, but we also want to make sure that the farmers are getting a quick assessment of the fences that bound Crown land. It is important that that is expedited as quickly as possible.

I do want to mention the wonderful people whom I call the Lucknow hall angels, led by Wendy McPhan and Jodie Crane, but really it was just a wonderful coming together, a spontaneous observance of need and response. They were amazing. Their donation centre was like a busy beehive, with trucks coming in and people bringing things, and also trucks going out and taking water bottles to Buchan, which I can remember very clearly. On one of the days that I was there, there were two things. One, we stuffed Tim Bull bags—not shamelessly supporting Tim Bull—with essentials that were then flown out to Mallacoota that afternoon. The other thing that was really important was the generosity and the kindness that happened at those centres and in particular the Lucknow one.

A lovely lady came in with her two daughters. She had rented at Sarsfield. The house burnt and all of her life within that house burnt. She had no insurance. But she came in, and we watched the way people swooped on her children and provided clothes and shoes and toys. We picked through—she was a small lady—to find her sizes, and she left with not much, but it was everything that could be accommodated for her, stuffed into a borrowed car.

I also want to acknowledge my colleague Tim Bull, who got on the phone right there and then, talked to somebody who owned a house and a unit, and set up one of those—I cannot remember, it might have been the unit—that she could go into for the next foreseeable weeks and months before she got back on her feet. This is one example, and there are multiple examples of this.

I do have to acknowledge with great shame and sadness that we see many people staying away from our region because of an association that just because there is fire in one patch you must stay away entirely. I stayed at Paynesville for a week and the people at Captains Cove were speaking about how people from interstate and overseas were cancelling bookings in March. It is incumbent upon all of us to send the message out that Gippsland is still open for business. There are multiple towns. Lakes Entrance and Mallacoota are now just becoming almost ready to be opened, but other centres, Paynesville et cetera, need our custom and need our cash, and they will deliver the most wonderful experience. So, please, I ask all of you to share the information to get people down to Gippsland. In particular, the other acknowledgement is that it is not just East Gippsland that people are staying away from. I was speaking with Michael Leaney from the Star Hotel in Walhalla, and people are staying away from that region as well. So, please, do yourself a favour, as Molly Meldrum would have once said, and come down to our patch. It is so very important.

One thing that is important to acknowledge is that the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission was very clear on a number of factors, and they were about reducing fuel load. They came up with a recommendation about planned burns of 5 per cent on public land to reduce fuel and bushfire risk. This equated to roughly 390 000 hectares per year. Five per cent was the target. However, last year we saw that only 1.7 per cent was burnt. I was pleased to speak to Chris Hardman last night. He has, I think, a sense of frustration that not enough was done. I endorse his commitment to seeing more of that. What we need to see is a reduction in fuel load, which then equates to an increase in safety for eastern Victorians.

Let me give you an example. I was passing through an area the other day with Darren Chester and a timber harvester, whose name is Warren Fenner. We went to Club Terrace. We wanted to get in and have a look. Warren asked us to come and we were more than happy to do so. But on the way in through there—and it is quite remote—there was one large patch of territory that had had a fuel reduction burn in it back in 2019, so about 12 months ago, give or take. There were lush green shoots, the tops of the trees and the canopy were green and there was a green understorey, and then right beside it was an incinerated section. These things do work. Those animals that could escape into that large tract of land would have been safe, and the animals that were in there to start with would still be alive. This has implications, and it is important to continue.

Also speaking with the ICC recently, Nowa Nowa had a preparatory burn around the top of it. Indeed when the fires came down to the top of Nowa Nowa, that preparatory burn slowed the fire down and I believe firmly protected that town. Ember attack is always still an issue, but that preparatory burn that occurred certainly helped to fortify the town.

Not only that, this is not just Melina Bath’s voice; hundreds of people in East Gippsland, when we go and speak to them, are saying the same thing. I know my colleague Tim Bull has set up a number of community meetings. I think he set up upwards of 20, and often what they are saying is we need to reduce that fuel load, we need to mitigate the build-up and it needs to occur soon.

Other issues in relation to the bushfires royal commission relate to roadside capabilities and reducing the fuel load on roadsides. We talk about the wick effect, where fuel is allowed to build up along those roads—often towns are only one road in, one road out—and they act as a wick and actually transfer the fire along the way. So recommendations 60 and 61 speak to the support as well for mitigating those types of burdens.

I would also like to just relate an issue that Garry Squires raised with me. I went to Orbost to have a chat with Garry back before Christmas, and we sat down. I am still grappling with why this cannot occur, and I think he is quite frustrated. There was a fire that was on the westerly boundary of the Snowy Mountains national park. That occurred back in November. Under calmer conditions—late November and early December—he related how containment lines could have been put in at the bottom of the gullies and through back-burning, so there are questions that need to be analysed and there are questions that need to be uncovered as to why these sorts of things did not occur. He prophesied back on 19 December what would happen with the fire, and sadly all of his prophecies have come true.

Yet fire is natural in our landscape. Eucalyptus forests are resilient and will grow back. We have mature trees that have not been destroyed. Driving along you see that epicormic growth—those beautiful side shoots that come out from blackened trees—and certainly I saw that on the way to Omeo with my federal colleague Bridget McKenzie, who accompanied me to the Australia Day events up there. This raises a thing that I have raised many times in this house before: the need to engage with Indigenous communities right across Victoria and bring back the firestick. This is a platform that I have been passionate about for many, many years. This needs to occur with the traditional owners, with Forest Fire Management Victoria, with the Previous HitCFANext Hit and with landholders. It is a way forward. It is a way of doing cool burns across the state at the right times. And it did occur in our region. To some who say it did not occur, I do not agree, and many, many others also agree that it occurred. There are some great illustrations and commentary in Bill Gammage’s book The Biggest Estate on Earth about explorers who saw large tracts of land that were parklike. We need to revisit this, we need to have a proper debate on this and we need to implement it as soon as possible.

I would just like to finish off with a couple of really important acknowledgements. I have had the privilege of meeting and chatting with a number of contractors that live and work in East Gippsland. Whilst they are being paid, and there is never any comment that they are not, they are an incredible asset to our state and on the fire front. On many occasions those native timber harvesters have put their equipment and their own personal safety at risk in order to open transport corridors, remove hazardous trees from the roadsides and get people back into their communities or provide that valuable resource of getting supplies in. They have done an amazing job. There have been many occasions where their equipment—highly expensive, highly specialised equipment—has been at risk. I want to acknowledge Warren Fenner, Rob Brunt, Andy Westaway, Brett Robin—who is an absolute character if you have ever seen or met him—and Gus McKinnon, who is a contractor up in Cann River. These people are exemplary, as are their committed and specialised team.

Danny Jamieson spoke with the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, but he also took the bit between his teeth to fortify Bendoc, a town that is still under threat. He said to me the other day, ‘I think we’ve dodged another bullet, but I’m beginning to feel like the circle is closing’. I hope that the work he did to clear that undergrowth very cleanly away from the town helps to fortify and protect that town.

I would like to finish by acknowledge a number of other groups. The Gippsland Emergency Relief Fund (GERF) are doing an amazing job. I am encouraging anyone who wants to donate to donate to them. Every cent of the money that comes into them goes out to people in need. I congratulate John and Alan and their fabulous team. I also want to make mention of an ex-student of mine, Daniel Lomani. Daniel was a Mirboo North Secondary College student and an Afghan refugee. His community in Dandenong, the Hazara community, in 10 days raised $160 000, a tremendous effort.

Mr Somyurek: Hear, hear!

Ms BATH: I note that Minister Somyurek was at the evening as well. Daniel made a comment to me: ‘Where should I suggest to put this money?’. I suggested GERF. Also they were very fabulous in donating to the CFA. I commend that community. These people have gone through so much in their own country, have come to our country and acknowledge and support their new country in a most magnificent way. Also I would like to acknowledge my colleague Tim Bull, who at his own home was putting out embers. His family have done it tough. His time has been well received by everybody in his region. And Darren Chester, also a federal colleague, has been magnificent. There is Bill Tilley in the north-east and Tim McCurdy; there has been fire in his region as well. They have lived every minute with their heart in their mouth many times. I mention East Gippsland Shire Council, but also other councils. Speaking with the incident control centre, there were representatives and staff from other councils backfilling and coming in to support them. I will not mention them all, but I congratulate them. The CEO, Anthony, and also the mayor and all of the councillors up there have been doing an amazing job.

To recognise the Australian Defence Force is also really important, and the work that they have done across the board. They are absolutely correct in saying that the community feels a little bit safer with their presence.

I do want to finally comment in terms of funding, and I applaud the federal government for their $2 billion worth of initiatives across the fire-ravaged areas and their New South Wales funding of $1 billion, but I ask this state government to commit. We have heard about millions that have happened, but we really need half a billion dollars to be spent in this area. It needs to be focused and targeted. There are other communities, like the Orbost Secondary College, who are doing it tough as well in that space. They need some additional funding to finish off a renovation that will occur very soon.

Thank you to the house for indulging my communications. I feel very privileged to represent the Eastern Victoria Region. I feel very privileged to have met a myriad of people, but it is all those other people who are working quietly and silently and not expecting any thanks who deserve our deepest gratitude as we remember in Hansard those five lovely human beings who are laid to rest.