Condolence motion: NSW bushfires

6th February 2020

Mr GREG PIPER (Lake Macquarie) (16:28:20): It has indeed been the summer of heartache for the people of New South Wales. It has been a summer of unprecedented bushfire emergency and of catastrophic loss. I speak here on behalf of every Lake Macquarie resident to pay tribute to those who have lost their lives to the fires that have ravaged so much of this State over the past few months. We stand with all those who have lost their homes. We stand in complete solidarity with our firefighters and other emergency services personnel, who have put their lives on hold and often on the line every day for months to save us from what has been an unimaginable horror.

On behalf of everyone in Lake Macquarie, I extend my deepest condolences to the families and local communities of the 25 victims of those fires. We remember Geoffrey Keaton, Andrew O'Dwyer, Samuel McPaul, Colin Burns, Robert Lindsay, Gwenda Hyde, Vivian Chaplain, George Nole, Julie Fletcher, Barry Parsons, Chris Savva, Russell Bratby, Robert Salway and his son Patrick Salway, Laurie Andrew, John Butler, John Smith, Michael Campbell, David Harrison, Ross Rixon, Michael Clarke as well as the three American crew members killed in the Snowy Monaro region: Ian McBeth, Paul Hudson and Rick DeMorgan Jr. We also remember the 56?year-old man yet to be formally identified who died in the Cobargo fire. Those 25 lives touched so many and our thoughts remain with them, their families and their communities.

As devastating as that loss of life is, we are grateful for the many thousands of lives that were saved by the selfless and heroic efforts of our firefighters and emergency services personnel. More than 5.5 million hectares of land were destroyed by bushfire this fire season. As previous members have mentioned, 2,432 homes were destroyed and another 1,021 were damaged. In total, almost 11,000 buildings and structures were destroyed or damaged, including three schools that were destroyed and another 80 that were damaged. Between half a billion and one billion native animals have perished as well as 14,500 livestock. Areas that had already been ravaged by the worst drought in living memory have now lost more than 600,000 hectares of valuable pastoral land. The loss of native insects and biota is unquantifiable, but their loss will have a real impact on the recovery of affected ecosystems. The loss of honey bees and foraging habitat will also impact native vegetation and agriculture, not to mention the beekeepers who rely on them for a living.

At home in Lake Macquarie, we were spared the worst of this summer's fires. We spent a month watching the Gospers Mountain mega fire in the south-west as it crept closer to our door, as well as other major fires to the west in the Hunter Valley. On New Year's Eve the most dangerous fire for us broke out when arcing powerlines are believed to have started a blaze west of Wangi Wangi. That blaze came at a time when a major fire on the Central Coast was turned around by a strong southerly wind, which pushed the inferno towards the small town of Wyee in the south of my electorate. Those areas are highly vulnerable to fire. Like most of my electorate, they are small suburbs that sit on the western side of the lake. To their west is miles and miles of national park and bushland. Once fires take hold of those areas they become highly vulnerable, as we saw about two decades ago when fires raged from the west into towns such as Woodrising, Fassifern, Wangi Wangi and Toronto.

By New Year's Day the fire that was sparked west of Wangi had raced quickly towards the populated townships of Wangi Wangi, Arcadia Vale, Eraring and Awaba. Eraring is home to Eraring Power Station, which provides 25 per cent of the State's power supply. As the Minister mentioned in response to a question today, if it was damaged the State would have faced a much deeper crisis. It took 10 brigades almost three days to bring the fire under control in extremely difficult conditions. The fire was skilfully managed around the power station and incredibly not a single life or home was lost. We also saw, as we have seen throughout the State for many months, an incredible display of support for those fighting the monster fires on the front line. Residents of Wangi Wangi, Arcadia Vale and neighbouring suburbs began flooding the command post with support for our local fireys. The Wangi Mens Shed and Wangi Lions Club led the charge, with a host of others, including Westlakes Netball Association, the local rugby club. Lake Macquarie City Council helped to coordinate the effort.

Donations of water, drinks, biscuits, cakes and other substantial food offerings began arriving by the car-load to keep our RFS and Fire and Rescue crews hydrated, fed and feeling comfortable. I spent a lot of time on the ground there and I know how much the effort meant not just to the firefighters but also to those who wanted to help in some way. I watched children bring in cakes and biscuits that they had baked for the local firefighters. Older people, obviously suffering from the extreme conditions, still turned up to offer what support they could. It was the worst that nature could throw at us but our best was being put in its path.

This fire came at a time of extreme weather conditions in our region, which led to the opening of our emergency operations centre and an evacuation centre at Avondale University College at Cooranbong. It was manned by Family and Community Services staff and coordinated by our local police Chief Superintendent Danny Sullivan. Danny lives in the local area and showed outstanding leadership in our district's time of need. The Lake Macquarie electorate is home to 10 RFS brigades made up of teams of men and women who volunteer their time to protect their local communities. They are at Wyee, Wyee Point, Awaba, Killingworth, Wakefield, Cooranbong, Martinsville, Mandalong, Dora Creek and the Morisset peninsula.

The crews have battled dozens of significant blazes locally this fire season and have also joined efforts at all major blazes throughout the State over the past five months. They have travelled to the South Coast and joined firefighting efforts at Moruya, Bredbo, Cobargo and Queanbeyan. They have travelled to the North Coast and of course to the Gospers Mountain mega fire, which had raged for several months to our south-west. They have joined special strike force efforts and have provided invaluable expertise to those efforts. I am incredibly proud of them and so are the communities they protect and represent.

On behalf of the Lake Macquarie community, I salute the RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons and Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers. There is not a single person who could not acknowledge the extraordinary efforts of these two men and the 70,000-plus volunteers they lead. For months they have backed up day after day and have been on the front line of our fight against these catastrophic events. They have led by example, co?ordinating the extraordinary efforts needed to save thousands of lives and providing the expert advice our communities needed. More than anything, they have provided us with reassurance that we were in good hands. We owe them and their crews a debt of gratitude.

I acknowledge Fire and Rescue NSW, the NSW Police Force, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Forestry Corporation, NSW Ambulance, the SES and the countless other agencies that have supported the efforts so far this season. We have seen extraordinary efforts from members of this House and in recent days we have heard harrowing stories from a number of members. I particularly note the contributions of the members representing the electorates of Bega, South Coast, Blue Mountains, Prospect, Myall Lakes, Wollondilly, Wagga Wagga, Port Macquarie, Mulgoa, Lismore and Clarence. It is somewhat ironic, though very welcome, that rain is now falling on many of our communities and that the bureau is predicting significant falls over the next few days. We are indeed a land of extremes and a land that will be particularly vulnerable to the extremes of climate change.

The scars of this bushfire season will remain, especially for those who have lost loved ones or have lost their home or their pets. However, the veil of sadness that has been so evident across the State and was palpable in this Chamber this week will lift, particularly as we see tangible action to rebuild and see green shoots emerge again in our bushland, forests and pastures. We need to make sure that those shoots of renewal do not make us complacent to the challenges ahead and changes that we must make. We need to keep looking after one another physically and emotionally and with an understanding that the impact on mental health can and will run deep. In closing, I join the chorus of voices commending the Premier and her Ministers who have been at the front of this crisis from the outset. The Premier has inspired confidence and brought some solace to impacted communities. The Premier rose to the occasion and it has been greatly appreciated. I commend the motion to the House.

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