Matters of Public Importance - Bushfire Preparedness

November 27, 2019

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.

This is sort of a good story I am going to tell you here. The local CFA guys were out on a truck a few weeks ago and they looked around at themselves and they determined that the youngest of them was 62 years of age—the youngest. So they said to themselves, 'We’ve gotta do something about this’, so they planned a doorknock throughout the whole area and they—can you believe it—recruited 16 new members in a very short time. The way they did it was by explaining that, 'You can’t get on the fire truck unless you’re a member. You have to wear a uniform. You can’t even go and fight for your parents’ home if it’s burning unless you are properly equipped. If you want to come with us’. The response generally around the community was 'Well, I guess we’d better join’, and they have. It is really quite a remarkable story, and I think it really reflects how country people sometimes deal with the problems that are facing them. I really applaud that can-do attitude that that particular CFA have taken to deal with the problems that they know they have. One of the bigger problems in those sorts of more remote areas of my electorate, and of course across the river in New South Wales, is that our communities are being hollowed out. There are very few young people to join anymore because they are leaving those areas. We have farming under such great challenge, we have poor water policy, we have a whole range of issues including the drought that are driving young people away from country communities. Parents are saying to their children, 'Don’t stay here. Look to your future somewhere else’, so it is very hard to get the level of recruitment you might need. And so many people in country areas of course rely on volunteers to do so much of this important work. In New South Wales just this week the leader of the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party in the New South Wales Parliament introduced a bill seeking to allow landowners adjoining forests and national parks to be able to undertake their own planned burning. For a distance of about 250 metres they of course put firebreaks on their property, they do planned burning on their property, and they now want the right to be able to go forward into a certain level and create a firebreak into the forests. That is the sort of thinking that is now happening in so many places, because the threat of fire and the concern about what we have seen happen in Queensland and New South Wales are so great that there is a very broad understanding that we cannot rely on being protected. We cannot rely on help coming from somewhere else always in the time that it is needed. We have to be prepared, we have to act, but we do need to have that ability to be able to do it. You can look at roadsides covered in tall grass and wood that has fallen from trees, just so much of a fuel load, and yet local councils will say, 'You’re not allowed to go and take the wood from the side of the road’. We have come to a position where we really actually need to do that. We are now in a time when we can no longer allow that sort of neglect to go on. It was done for good reason at a time when we were in a wetter period, when it was a habitat and it was all those good things, but it is no longer safe to allow that sort of a fuel load to exist. I had so many things I wanted to say, but I think in winding up I would like to pay tribute to all of the CFAs in my electorate. I meet them at dinners and at many events during the course of the year and the work they do is astounding, but I do reflect on the fact that they are an ageing volunteer force and we are going to have to address that somehow. While Yalca-Yielima have come up with a creative way of doing it, we are going to have to think of many other creative ways because the CFA volunteers are a critical part of our firefighting system and we need them.

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