Matters of Public Importance - Bushfire Preparedness
Indeed this is a matter of public importance. The forthcoming bushfire season is a matter of great concern to our communities. In Shepparton last week the headlines of our local newspaper were 'Code red’ and we were advised of the catastrophic circumstances that we would face on that day. It really does strike fear into the hearts of people who live in regional areas when that sort of warning comes out. I do not think there would be anyone anywhere who would disagree with that. But with it comes a level of concern about what that means. There is a real need for more clarity around what these sorts of warnings mean. I know people were contacting me and my electorate office asking, 'Should I leave? Should I stay?’. This messaging is very important, but it has taken on a different look now—the whole question of whether you do stay or leave—and it often comes down to where you live. Once it would have been thought that if you lived in the forest, if you lived out in country areas where there was a lot of grass or a lot of trees and it was a day like we had last week, you might think about leaving. But now in a town like Shepparton or Mooroopna we have many people living along the river, which is actually part of our city, our town. Many houses there would be very seriously affected and burn if a fire got started in the forest between Shepparton and Mooroopna. So there is a serious lack of clarity around what people should do at certain times, and I do not think you can always rely on the common sense of people. That day last week was the day when, for the first time, I packed a bag. Now that might sound odd, but I have some precious things. They are photos mainly, there are some important papers that anyone would want with them, a passport and those sorts of things—and for me it was a day when I thought, 'This has really not happened before and this could be a day when our area could get hit really badly’. So I had my things ready at the door, the things that were important to just put in the car and go. A lot of people might think that that was fairly fanciful because I probably am about a kilometre away from the river, but I think we have all seen the change that has happened in our environment, the dryness that we now face. Farmers for years have been talking about the change in the seasons, the drought and the impact of climate change, and I think for many people who live in towns even we see it. I know even in my garden, and I have quite a big garden, I have seen the change in the way plants now react, the ones that survive, the ones that do not—these are all a sign of the times. I think we are very wise to take into account the change that is occurring and the preparations that we need to make in relation to that. In the paper the day following our code red the local fire chief, Pete Dedman, said we were lucky. It was like we dodged a bullet. There were a few small fires, a house fire, a small grassfire, various ones that were gotten under control quickly, but it was a day when there were hot north winds blowing right through the region and it could have been a disaster. It was not, but we know we are going to face many more of these days as we go forward. One of the areas in my electorate that is such a concern to me is the Barmah National Park, and indeed the Barmah forest and the Lower Goulburn National Park, which run along our Goulburn River and along the Murray River. They are vast areas: 77 000 hectares of national park. Just yesterday I spoke with our fire chief, Peter Newman, who is the chief of the CFA at Yalca-Yielima. That is the CFA that is located all along that northern part of my electorate that faces onto the forest. He expressed his great concern about the state of the forest. It has been incredibly dry for a long time. There is not usually a lot on the forest floor, but more and more leaves are falling, bark is peeling off the trees and there has been no management of that park for a very long time, so there are so many saplings that exist that are blocking off tracks in the forest. He said that there had been no burning undertaken and no preparation done for the forthcoming fire season that he could see in the area that he covered. There are some tracks that have been graded and others that have not. He said it is a disaster waiting to happen because if you get the right conditions, if you get that north wind behind a fire on the New South Wales side coming across into the forest, then you have a serious disaster, and you have one of the most iconic red gum forests in the world—Ramsar-listed—ready to blow. I think that is something that troubles everyone who lives along that part of the region.