From the outset I also convey my condolences and sympathy for the 173 very precious lives that were lost in February 2009. Those people belonged to family and friends, and I reach out and provide my sympathy and support for those who lost people who were very close to them. It is very hard to imagine what it would be like to lose someone from your own family or a close friend in such tragic circumstances.
I know the circumstances must weigh heavily on those people’s minds on a continuing basis. I think the psychological wounds that people have experienced as a result will take some time to heal. Of course the physical recovery will also be at different stages.
Even with the deep wounds the community has been suffering there have also been an amazing number of stories that provide us with hope and resilience. The yellow ribbons that many of us wear on our lapels tell the story of February 2009 and the time when an enormous number of deaths and a lot of destruction and havoc occurred in our state but also, as I said, there was resilience and hope.
Most of us are aware that the Black Saturday bushfires occurred mainly in the north-east of the state, but there were also bushfires in western Victoria in the electorate that Mr Koch, Ms Pulford, Mr Kavanagh, Mr Vogels and I represent. I understand that previous speakers have talked about the fires there, but I also want to mention the four fires in western Victoria.
The first fire I want to mention is the one that occurred in Coleraine, which is a township about 320 kilometres west of Melbourne. On that occasion 1 house was destroyed, 770 hectares of land were burnt, 18 properties were affected, approximately 70 cattle and 200 sheep were lost, and 3 hardwood plantations were destroyed. I understand the situation was on a knife edge as to whether or not the Coleraine township was going to be more heavily impacted, and there were very serious concerns and fears about the fire approaching the Coleraine hospital. While no-one died in the fires in western Victoria, a number of people were injured.
On previous occasions when we have spoken of the bushfires we have mentioned Mr John Smeets, who was badly burnt as he assisted another farmer to shift livestock. He had burns to over half of his body and spent an enormous amount of time in hospital in Melbourne. Mrs Smeets was also in Melbourne for much of the time, so it had a lot of impact on their family. I believe Mrs Smeets was in the public gallery the last time we had a discussion about the bushfires.
What we as a government have attempted to do, apart from providing individual assistance to people affected by bushfires, is to provide support for community projects and community amenities. That has been the case in Coleraine in terms of emergency volunteer support grants, men’s sheds, personal hardship grants, upgrades to sporting facilities, playgrounds, public amenities and an upgrade to the Coleraine public relief centre.
I mention that so people will understand there have been a number of things that the local community has been working on on top of everything else it has been doing to build a sense of community and community capacity. The rebuilding of Coleraine has been a combined effort. Of course it has included individual community members, but the Southern Grampians shire has also played a significant role. The Southern Grampians municipal recovery manager has been fantastic, and the Coleraine and District Development Association, along with Regional Development Victoria, also need to be mentioned for the role they have played.
The second fire I want to mention is the one that occurred around the outskirts of Horsham. On that occasion three properties in Horsham were destroyed and the Horsham Golf Club was significantly affected. Nine properties in Haven and one in Drung were destroyed.
The Haven Recreation Reserve was impacted upon, and over 2000 hectares of cropping and lifestyle farm property were destroyed as well.
I mention the Haven fire because of a friend who was caught up in it, a woman called Mandy Kirsopp, who was in her home at the time and looked up and thought something was odd. She was on her way to the university campus and thought, ‘Something is so odd that I am going to have a Pippi Longstocking moment and climb up on my roof’, which she did. She quickly became aware that there was a very fast-moving grassfire heading right towards her property in Haven. The fire took out the whole back section of her property, including all the water tanks and sheds. It got as close as 1 metre from her back door. If it had not been for a very dramatic and swift wind change and a friendly grader driver coming through the back part of the property, she, her property and her children would not have survived.
When she took me through the property two days after the fire you could pick up the sense of fear. It made me aware of what really needs to be put in place, not just in terms of emergency service systems but also in terms of individuals and families, to even think about being bushfire prepared.
The rebuild at Horsham has been significant. We know that the golf course rehabilitation and restoration has gone ahead and there has been tremendous community as well as government support. A number of other memorial events have been supported, as well as a number of other things.
I also want to mention the fire that occurred around Weerite. There were a number of other communities on the perimeter of the fire, but this location is around 30 minutes drive west of Colac. There were about 50 families involved in that fire. Of the families in that area, 30 per cent are involved in agriculture.
Around 1300 hectares were burnt out, and the track of the fire can be clearly seen from the Princes Highway. Members who might not use the Princes Highway often might not be aware that after the fire the smell of smoke was still coming into cars travelling up and down that highway because the peat in the ground was still burning many months after the fire was extinguished on the surface, so to speak. It was a very unusual fire, to say the least. You could also see the rebuild happening. The fencing was put up pretty quickly and, again, it was a testament to people’s community spirit in making sure things were cleaned up and replaced.
The other fire, which occurred around 23 February, was known as the Musk Vale Hogans Road fire. It started on the edge of the Midland Highway about 4 kilometres south of Daylesford. I know from a number of friends who live in the area that there was an enormous amount of concern about properties and lives around Daylesford. In fact there were a number of times we thought Daylesford was going to be safe and the fire was under control, but each time we thought that was going to be the case the worst-case scenario kept on popping up. I take this opportunity to thank all of the people who were involved in fighting those fires and the support people behind the firefighters. They did an amazing job making sure that fire did not wreak more havoc than was already the case.
I also want to say that there has been some fantastic initiatives in the area in terms of recovery. The community recovery committee has undertaken a number of community events, which were really needed. There was also recognition that youth in the area were particularly affected by what happened.
They had to be transported out of their homes on a number of occasions and there have been specific youth programs to assist young people in their recovery from that experience.
They were the four fires we had in western Victoria. It was not the same as the situation that occurred in north-east Victoria but they were fires nonetheless. They were vicious, they were very fast, but they were also different from one another. My faith in people’s resilience has been improved somewhat as a result of seeing how they have been able to cope with their situation while lending an amazing amount of support to communities in the north-east of Victoria, whether they be Country Fire Authority volunteers or people who have become involved in a whole range of community organisations and made themselves and their skills available to assist others who have been less fortunate.
I was particularly pleased that the government decided a royal commission was the right way to go because it provided an opportunity for all members of the community to have a say on something that has been such a dramatic aspect of our history. It also provided an open forum where there could be proper and full discussion about measures that could be put in place to attempt to ensure that anything like what happened in February 2009 does not happen again.
I was pleased to see the handing down of the recommendations the weekend before last and particularly pleased that the government decided to have another round of consultation on the eight recommendations it has at the moment not accepted. There can be no dispute that the way members of this government have approached everything since the bushfires is to roll up their sleeves and get in there to do the job. The Premier himself has played a remarkable role and we have all joined with the community to listen and to rebuild this great state.
So it was only appropriate and proper that we went back to the community and said, ‘On these eight items in particular that we think might be more controversial or more difficult, we would really like your input’.
I was pleased to attend a consultation last Friday night in Anglesea; it was a well-attended forum where work tables were designated for particular issues. People chose which tables they wanted to go to, but they also had the opportunity to rotate through the tables so they could voice their issues or concerns about topics across the board.
The areas that were consistently raised that evening, and indeed when I was at Lethbridge and Maude on Sunday, were issues of personal safety, whether of individuals or local communities, and they included the issues of evacuation, refuges, neighbourhood safer places and fuel reduction.
Of course a number of other issues were talked about, but those were the main ones that focused people’s attention. Every single person who has been involved has come to the consultations really appreciative of the chance of making a contribution, of having their say, and many have come up with a number of ideas that other people have just not thought about.
To focus particularly on Anglesea, it is a coastal town and has only one road in and one road out, which is quite unusual for such a community. It is also a community that has a number of tourists, particularly in the summer months, which are notoriously the bushfire months, so there need to be special procedures and systems put in place to ensure that the people who are not regular visitors or permanent residents understand what is meant by the different processes that would be put in place.
There was also a really heartfelt conversation amongst a number of older residents who are now going to organise amongst themselves to get onto the register, which is a register for older people and people who are vulnerable, so that there is a phone chain operating. They are going to not just organise themselves but organise other people in the streets around them. I was very pleased that they were thinking ahead and wanting to take control of the situation for themselves.
I will say in closing that I listened to many of the criticisms espoused by the opposition yesterday and particularly today, and I just do not want to get into that realm at all. This government did not wait for the interim report; it got on with business. We were in there with our sleeves rolled up working with communities and working with all the authorities towards a recovery and trying to alleviate the concerns and problems that people had. This is a government that cannot be accused of not doing anything; in fact the reverse has been the case.
I believe that we are now at that next step. Let us continue to move towards a view on the last eight recommendations so that we can work together on an implementation plan for the whole of the commission’s recommendations. We have an enthusiastic community that wants to endorse what is before us and work towards making sure that we do not have an outcome in any way similar to what we experienced in February 2009.