State and Federal Nationals have spoken about the effect of the bushfire disaster in Parliament this week, as some regions continue to battle blazes while in others the rebuilding and recovery effort continues.
Dr David Gillespie, the Federal Member for Lyne on the mid-north coast, spoke about the fires that ripped through his region late last year:
On November 8 my electorate became the epicentre of a ferocious bushfire season that has hit our region and continued across the nation incredibly hard. During that bushfire that week in November and the week subsequently, over 250,000 hectares was wiped out, including over 100 homes, a school and many businesses—a frighteningly devastating blow for so many in all our local communities. In the MidCoast Council area the November fires resulted, unfortunately and sadly, in the death of one Johns River resident. In the MidCoast Council area 379 buildings and outbuildings were destroyed and 175 were damaged. Bobin Public School was burnt out save for the original old building, which was the library. I was really pleased to see that it has reopened, with a massive rebuilding program continued over the December-January holidays. The Rainbow Flat Rural Fire Service building and three bridges were also destroyed.
Further north, in the Port Macquarie-Hastings area, 37 homes were destroyed or damaged. Facilities included a couple of sawmills, two bridges and 68 outbuildings. Over 500 rural landholders had their properties impacted in some way.
After the fires, the recovery has commenced. When I was speaking to David West, Mayor of the MidCoast Council, the resilience was shining through everywhere, and he certainly attests to that. But the true recovery will only commence when people see the burnt-out buildings being cleared and removed and the new buildings literally rising from the ashes. The accepted feelings are and have been that, even though this has been really devastating for so many people, it could have been so much worse. We were lucky when our fires came through, because it wasn’t as hot as it has become over the height of summer and because of all the forces that were marshalled into MidCoast and Hastings, and then up into the Coffs Harbour region. If the fires had started simultaneously with what’s been happening on the South Coast, it would have been totally overwhelming and the losses would have been far greater.
Whether they are RFS or SES volunteers, council workers or people volunteering their help and support in Rotary and Lions clubs, so many people are so grateful to so many people who put their lives on hold to come and help. We also had visiting firefighters from around Australia—from interstate and intrastate—and from New Zealand and Canada. The Australian Defence Force and the emergency services created firebreaks and conducted major water bombing operations and transport logistics.
There were countless acts of bravery and selflessness during this. A couple of people I contacted who did amazing things have mentioned to me that their names should not be mentioned. That just attests to the character of these people. But one of them is worried he might lose his job because he showed initiative and created firebreaks, which were forbidden by adjacent national parks and wildlife services. There was a fellow in the Johns River fire who was seen by many, including myself, pushing his backhoe up and literally pushing the fire away from houses. It could have ended in a much worse situation, with ignition of the machinery. That fellow, the hero that he is, really did go above and beyond what any normal person could expect. I also think of a local Wauchope volunteer firefighter, Ryan Channells, who, despite being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer only a day before the major bushfires struck, went out to fight fires and help save many, many homes and properties because he thought he would just prefer to help other people, and that’s what firefighters do.
Heavy smoke had clogged the local area for months beforehand, because, before the devastating fires, we’d had a couple of peat fires in dried-out wetlands. The electorate was really grateful for the support it got from the Prime Minister and emergency services and from the Premier, who visited. I can say that the speed of the response from the Commonwealth services during this bushfire crisis was exceptional. We’ve seen other natural disasters take weeks to get a disaster declaration and an emergency declaration passed through the machinery of local government, to state and to federal, but these processes were completed by the Sunday after the fires had started.
The bushfire recovery effort has begun, as I mentioned, and I have visited many areas that have been affected, particularly Killabakh and Bobin—cases in point. Amongst them are various measures that the Commonwealth has announced. Social services were delivered expeditiously due to the help of the minister responsible and we had mobile Centrelink services turning up around the electorate within days of the emergency being declared. I’d like to thank BlazeAid, all our local charities, our councils, our service clubs, our schools and tradies, and people interstate and from Sydney and Newcastle who drove up with white goods or food and any amount of support for people who were devastated by the fire.
The thing that we do know is that these local country halls are really a treasure for the local community. In so many bushfire affected areas, the local community hall was the epicentre of the recovery effort, as well as helping people. We had multiple community leaders pop up, just by their very nature organising people. The government’s rollout of assistance for farm, fishery and forestry businesses is really appreciated. The $100 million will go a long way towards keeping them afloat until their businesses recover. Our councils—MidCoast Council and Port Macquarie-Hastings Council—have both been helped with the up-front $1 million emergency payments. Also, many small businesses are going through the work of obtaining the financial assistance that the Commonwealth has put up, including low-interest loans and cash payments for affected businesses. Many volunteers have accessed the $300-a-day payment, because many of them have done weeks—months now—of service as volunteers. I’d also like to thank Company D in the bushfire effort from the Australian reserve forces, who turned up to work with BlazeAid. I was very pleased to meet with them at Wauchope Showground and have a get-together with the BlazeAid people and thank them personally.
The mental health issues from these bushfires will linger. So many people are so stoic. The fact that people are getting involved and helping them is quite therapeutic for them, but the support that they will need through the beyondblue initiative and through other mental health agencies that the PHNs are running will be really important, because the scars will linger for a long time. It will only be when we see the new buildings rising from the ashes that people will really feel that the recovery is underway.
Because our fires happened in November there are many learnings of what has been done that we can make other councils and other electorates aware of. MidCoast Council has excused fees for a whole range of building applications for the original buildings to be replaced. It is really ahead of the curve. It has managed to not only control the fire that ran in one of the huge garbage dumps but establish asbestos pits so that there is somewhere to put the waste from asbestos identified buildings. It has put extra space in the tip. It is so ahead of the curve that it means when Public Works comes through with its contractors we will be able to do it all locally. It’s a really important thing that all the work coming out of the recovery effort be given to locals. We don’t want to have all these contracts for clean-up and construction put out to non-locals. There may be overwhelming demand for buildings and we may have to rely on non-locals, but it is so much better for local communities for local businesses to receive the contracts.
We have learnt in the telecommunications space that when one of these supercell fires comes through everything can go out. Mobile phones and satellite phones are taken out because the clouds prevent the satellite signal coming through. The heat of the bushfires can trip fuses in the mobile towers. They are not actually burnt, even though many of them have got really large cleared areas; it’s just that the really intense heat flips the switches, and the communications are lost. The telecommunications workers can’t come in until the fire has long gone and it is safe.
Fixed line exchanges were taken out as well. Many of them tripped over because the power to the exchanges was lost. In a normal situation, a diesel generator or huge batteries might run the exchange for up to eight to 12 hours, but, because of the ferocity of these fires, this is an area where we need to do something. I’ve been in numerous conversations with the telecommunications providers to make sure they have bigger reserves and that they have either much more battery storage there or automatic kick-in of diesel generators to keep these exchanges going.
One of the other speakers today mentioned that wonder of technology, the old battery powered radio. A lot of these impromptu emergency centres were community halls. They all should have radio contact, a diesel generator, satellite phones, emergency refrigeration—it’s an easy fix. That is one of the other learnings. What we learned in this fire crisis was that the number, the extent and the breadth of the fires were overwhelming state capabilities and local capabilities. What we have to remember is that we here in Canberra can’t do it all. With the way the Constitution is set up, a lot of the entities that have been running emergency services—the SES, the RFS, the police—will need to do the processes that we’re doing: looking back and seeing what they have learnt and what we should do.
I’m advocating that every area should have a designated emergency centre, because we’ve had massive floods on the north coast in the last few years where whole townships were isolated, like Bulahdelah, and showgrounds become an emergency gathering spot. A lot of horses and animals that were saved from certain death had to go somewhere. The caretakers of the Wauchope Showground—impromptu, without any organisation—turned themselves into a constant holding bay for all these evacuated animals. Other entities got half an hour’s notice and were designated as emergency centres, like Club Old Bar and Club Taree. Club Taree, which normally looks after fine dining, a bit of entertainment and supporting the golf club, all of a sudden was home to roughly 720 people for a couple of days. They had to have enough supplies to feed and support those people, but the practicalities of it were quite challenging. Because they were a centre, I’m sure, they will now have learnt from this, as Club Old Bar has. There are things like having a register of everyone who arrives at these emergency centres so that there is a register that the police can go to and family members can be notified. We need systems, as the member for Eden-Monaro said, like all the military procedures. We need to apply them and have a spreadsheet of all the things that we need to have.
You can see the weather pattern is changing with the monsoonal lows starting to come in. Odds on, we’re going to get—like we did after the ’64 huge drought—huge floods. Up and down the North Coast, some of these townships can be caught by floods which make them isolated for days, like in bushfires. If we had a system in place where everyone knows where the emergency centre is, and the centre had radios, satellite phones, emergency generators and maybe an underground tank of water—because many of the tanks around these places were burnt—it would be a great initiative. But, like I said, we can’t do all this in Canberra. This would be a local government and state government initiative. I would also like to compliment the work of my state members during all this. Stephen Bromhead and Leslie Williams were particularly active in this regard. There are the mayors, like Peta Pinson, and the people from the Port Macquarie-Hastings Council. There are Paul De Szell, Mayor David West and Adrian Panuccio. There are too many for me to name them all, but local councils have really stepped up in this situation.
The other learning we have to take from this disaster is that we need to have a granular plan to get the timber industry back to recovery mode. In the mid-coast area and further north, there are 1,200 direct timber workers. As I mentioned, there are a couple of mills that have been burnt out. The employment of those workers and the businesses that run off those mills have summarily ceased. But these same timber workers have gone out as contractors for national parks and wildlife, for local government, for RMS, to help with the clean-up. Their businesses are paying their wages but their businesses have not been paid. I know this is overwhelming a lot of government processes but we have to look after these businesses that have put their assets at their behest across the state, not necessarily in our local area but up in other electorates in the north of the state. We really do need to support them.
People mentioned how the knock-on effect of the bushfires on tourism has been quite devastating. It has been. Overnight, the bookings ceased coming—and then came the cancellations. Many of our tourism businesses on the coastal strip are still suffering—let alone those in the hinterland in these burnt areas, which have had no business. The casualties in business turnover have been staggering. We do have, at a federal level, a local and international tourism program, but I’m calling on everyone to take a three-day break in these bushfire affected areas. There are corporate groups that have given a commitment to hold their meetings or seminars in bushfire affected regions, and I would like to compliment those businesses. There are big, medium and small businesses that have signed up for it. As locals, if you are having a reunion of schoolmates, take a trip to a bushfire affected area—or a drought affected area, for that matter. The turnover from you staying in a hotel for a weekend, getting counter meals, buying drinks and visiting the local things will really get these businesses back on their feet.
Other speakers mentioned the learnings of Indigenous Australians in regard to fire. They have used fire for thousands of years to shape their environment for their own protection and we can learn so much from them. It was called firestick burning. There are groups that have been named after that, publications about it. The fact is that Indigenous burning practices made life a lot safer for the Indigenous people. And the flora and fauna benefit from regular low-level burns. Early settlers learned that. Foresters from generations past learned that. You protect your asset if it’s low level and it’s frequent.
Many of the national parks in the Port Macquarie-Hastings and MidCoast Council areas were, 30 and 40 years ago, state forests. The old foresters still live, and they talk about how they used to burn their forests every couple of years. But the fires were lucky if they got above your waist; they weren’t the big canopy fires, where you get all the eucalyptus oil igniting. I heard a lecturer from the University of Technology give a wonderful dissertation on the radio about how it increases biosecurity. A lot of the Australian fauna and flora benefit from a clean-out of the forest. It allows dominant species not to be so dominant. All species of flower get a rejuvenation when a small low-level cold burn comes through. The green shoots that come out support the native animals. Koalas don’t get burnt like they have in these supercanopy fires because they’re way up above the fire. There are so many things we can learn from the Indigenous in this regard.
As I said, the old foresters and the old graziers all used to look after their bit of bush on their land. It was common practice every winter for landholders to put a little fire through their stand of trees or the 20 or 30 acres of forest that hadn’t been cleared because it protected their property. It also helped keep weed and invasive species down, because after a fire the native species flourish quicker. The smoke after a fire actually causes the seeds to open. For the last 40,000 to 60,000 years or more, Mother Nature has included Indigenous practices. The idea that we lock our national parks up and leave them to nature doesn’t protect species. You’ve now seen many threatened species, unfortunately, die because the fire is so big and so large and the forest litter hasn’t been cleared. The natural history is that low-level fire regularly through these areas will help the forest, not take it out like these supercell fires do.
We should take note of and learn from what has been observed in former royal commissions. There have been so many royal commissions after bushfire crises. All the recommendations are a recurring feature, and we need to take stock of them. If they had been followed, we wouldn’t be in the situation we are in now. The areas are so large and have been built up so much with forest litter and debris, and road access has been lost because national parks have been locked up that it is very hard for anyone in the middle of winter to do a controlled burn. You need access roads to do that, and you need to do it low level and regularly.
Again, the true character and fibre of the Australian public in these towns and communities that have been affected by bushfires really has shone through. Like I said, so many local community people have put their own lives on hold to help their colleagues. All the volunteers, who have done so much, have really shone through. Who would have thought that people would be fighting on a roster basis as a volunteer for two and three months, but many of our people are and many have come from all over Australia to do that. I would like to thank them on behalf of my electorate from the bottom of our hearts.
To anyone who is listening: please come and visit the beautiful MidCoast and Port Macquarie-Hastings area and all the way up the coast of Australia. Take a trip across the mountains. If you go west from Coffs Harbour, you can do a big loop and then come down and visit these towns and put some money in the businesses’ tills. You can stay in the motels, visit the pubs, visit their restaurants, spend up big. You’ll see what all these wonderful people have been through.