Black Saturday condolence

February 06, 2019

It is really a privilege to be here today and to be a part of this condolence motion. It was such a tragic day.

At the outset I would like to say, without renaming everyone who has been honoured by other members of Parliament, that I certainly share that support and acknowledge the hard work that so many people did on that day at all levels of government, within our emergency services and elsewhere.

At the state commemoration service on Monday night I was struck by the names of the 173 people who lost their lives. Every person on that list was important to someone, was loved by someone—and by many, I am sure. Every person will have been missed desperately over the course of this past decade, and each life lost is a tragedy in its own right. But to see the same surname repeated two, three, four, five times; to feel the gravity of whole families being taken and whole communities disappearing was immensely sobering.

I took from the speech given by the member for Eildon the horror of that day and the feeling that I think most of us felt. I was not a member of Parliament back then—I was a resident of Shepparton—but it was a day to remember, and I think we all will certainly remember it for a whole lot of reasons. It was almost too hot to go outside and, like many others, we had 774 on the radio. That long day and night started to unfold in front of us—the horror of it generally came into our psyche and we started to understand what was happening. People were being called in in different places. The hospital was put on alert. Our firefighters were put on alert and indeed many of them had already gone. So while that fire did not touch Shepparton district directly, physically, our community, like many others, was personally impacted.

I grew up on a farm at Jerilderie. Bushfires were not uncommon, but they were the low grassfires. The horror of these forest fires is really something to behold compared to the sort of bushfires that I had experienced in my life. I think the state of our forests at that time, the warnings we received leading up to that, were all very much in my mind and in the minds of probably most country people then. I remember the Premier particularly giving a warning in advance of Black Saturday about the shocking conditions that we were facing.

Over the years various people have shared with me their local experience of the day, particularly those who were involved in the emergency services. Crews of firefighters from district 22, my district, went south to support their district 12 colleagues. They were at Kilmore—district 12 was the Kilmore fire. They had actually been there for days leading up to Black Saturday to help them with the tasks they had around them. They relieved local fireys from their command posts so that they could go to the front line with their own crews. They took calls from members of the public, either seeking information to protect themselves and their families, or sharing information to support the emergency effort. They were on deck when news of the fatalities started to come in and they stayed for weeks after the fires were slowly brought under control and the heartbreaking clean-up and investigations began.

Our hospital was also involved. Goulburn Valley Health was put on stand-by, and as the extent of the crisis emerged many staff who were on days off returned, volunteering their time and expertise. A young man and his heavily pregnant wife managed to escape fires engulfing the Yarra Ranges and made a nearly seven-hour trip to Shepparton with their toddler son and elderly parents. The owner of the hotel took them in close to midnight, just in time for the woman’s waters to break, and she gave birth at Goulburn Valley Health just a few hours later.

In the days that followed the hospital cared for another man who had lost his wife and children. As chance would have it, the couple knew the man—they were from the same community and were able to comfort and support each other while they were stranded there at Goulburn Valley Health, away from their other family and friends. We often talk about the resilience of regional communities and their ability to band together in times of need, but it is really at the heart of the broader human condition, and it was truly on display during the fires and the months and years that followed.

All Victorians will be grateful to those who were involved in the emergency effort. It is an honour to be here today to express my support and to indicate how grateful I am. I am sure if the previous member of Parliament for the Shepparton district were here today, she would have much to share too about her on-the-ground involvement in what went on.

I would also just like to say that I acknowledge the member for Yan Yean. How could any of us not be touched by that firsthand experience you shared with us today. I think it certainly brings home to all of us that stark reality of what it was like, and I thank you for sharing that very deep and emotional experience with us. I think it has brought us all closer to what that day meant for everyone and particularly those on the front.

I congratulate the government on honouring this day, on taking the time out to provide the opportunity for members to be able to speak to the event and to be able to share their own thoughts and experiences. On that note I think we all have a shared grief to some extent, but some so much more than others. I say on behalf of the Shepparton district that this event will remain in all our hearts forever. We continue to think about the loss and the devastation that occurred and look for ways of trying to avoid it happening again.


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