Victorian Bushfires

About this Item
SpeakersHodgkinson Ms Katrina; Speaker; Furolo Mr Robert; Hazzard Mr Brad; McDonald Dr Andrew; Terenzini Mr Frank; Ashton Mr Alan; Andrews Ms Marie; Assistant-Speaker (Mr Grant McBride)

Page: 13480

Condolence Motion

Debate resumed from 5 March 2009.

Ms KATRINA HODGKINSON (Burrinjuck) [10.45 a.m.]: Every citizen in the Burrinjuck electorate extends deepest condolences to the people of Victoria. The motion moved by the Premier is in the following terms:
      (1) That this House:

(a) places on record and expresses its deepest condolences to the families and friends of those who lost their lives in the bushfires which recently devastated the State of Victoria;

(b) offers its sympathy to those who have been affected by the fires whether through injury or the loss of their property and personal effects; and.

(c) acknowledges the ongoing contribution of the firefighters and those engaged in the recovery effort, including those who have travelled from New South Wales to assist in these efforts.

(2) That this resolution be communicated by the Speaker of the House to the Speaker of the Parliament of Victoria.

I reiterate the condolences that have been expressed by every member in this House who has spoken on the condolence motion. Australians witnessed extraordinary events following the devastating bushfires on 7 February. On that day I happened to be at the opening of the Gunning show. Gunning is a small community and on that day residents in the local area were concerned about the possibility of a bushfire because the temperature was 43 degrees Celsius, which is extraordinarily hot even for the middle of summer. We did not know that just to the south of us fires were about to start, with spotting affecting areas 30 kilometres away, and resulting in the deaths of many dear friends south of the border.

The shock that we felt on hearing the news cannot be compared to the grief experienced by families, friends, local communities and community representatives in the Victorian Parliament. We could do nothing other than offer our sympathy and send emergency service personnel to assist in fighting the bushfires. Fires that rage at the speed with which the Victorian fires were raging and under such intense conditions are out of anybody's control—they are totally in the hands of the Lord. Once those fires had started there was not much that anybody could have done. After those horrific fires on 7 February, concerned people commenced sending condolences to my electorate office. The condolence book in my electorate office now has quite a number of signatures in it and I will send it to the Victorian Parliament in due course. The Speaker opened a condolence book in Parliament House—I am aware that many members signed it, just as I signed it—and it has been sent to the Speaker of the Victorian Parliament.

There is nothing quite like fighting a bushfire. As a young teenage girl, growing up on a farm in country New South Wales, I often helped my father to fight fires. He was captain of the Jeir-Marchmont Bush Fire Brigade. From an early age I obtained experience in fighting fires, nothing to the scale of the fires that occurred in Victoria but enough to give me an understanding of how frightening fires can be and how quickly they can travel. One of my first firefighting experiences was on the property of Don McColl, a neighbour who lived on a farm called Ceridale. Don, a very dear man who recently passed away, was using an angle grinder in a paddock on a windy day. That was not the smartest of things to be doing on a hot, windy day. Sparks from the angle grinder ignited the grass and, before he knew what had happened, the place was on fire. We chugged along in our little fire truck and helped him to put it out. It took several hours to put out the fire, which kept spotting away from the area in which we were working.

Members will remember the terrible outbreak in 2003 of bushfires in the Kosciuszko and Namadji national parks. On 18 January 2003, four people from Canberra lost their lives and most of the suburb of Duffy went up in smoke, with the loss of 400 houses. My husband, my daughter and I—absolutely foolishly I realise now, having seen the images of what happened in Victoria—stood on our rainwater tank and watched the fire coming from across Burrinjuck Dam and Canberra. We wondered whether it was going to get to us. Fortunately, it did not reach our place; it was quite some miles away from our property. We were lucky. If the Yass fires on 18 January 2003 had the ferocity of those in Victoria, with fires spotting 30 kilometres in advance of the fire front, we would have been gone.

It is probably not enough to say that we sympathise with the people of Victoria; no words can express to them the level of grief we feel for what they have been through. I do not think we can express our feelings to them. As we know, 210 people perished, and that toll could rise even higher. I understand that the army is now going through some of the towns that were destroyed. More than 2,000 homes—my goodness!—have gone. The bushfires that hit Canberra in 2003 destroyed 400 homes, and we are still reeling from that. In this case 2,000 homes and farmhouses were destroyed, countless businesses were wiped out, more than 350,000 hectares of land were burnt out and more than 1,500 farming structures—entire dairies—were wiped out. Woolsheds, hay sheds, machinery sheds and entire communities were lost.

Many members have gone through the whys and wherefores, and the hazard reduction requirements, and reiterated the fact that National Parks does not have the resources to deal with fire hazards—and that is all true. But let us not lose sight of the fact that this is the most horrific event ever to happen in Australia. In all the political argy-bargy, let us not lose sight of the fact that 210 innocent Australians, who should have been going about their usual business on that Saturday and in the weeks following, were killed, and that countless other Australian lives will be impacted as a result of their deaths. The number of children killed is obviously heartbreaking. The number of babies killed in this tragedy is something that I am sure will take a long time for people to come to grips with, if ever.

I congratulate the Victorian Parliament. I congratulate Peter Ryan, the Leader of The Nationals, Ted Baillieu, the Leader of the Liberal Party, and the Premier of Victoria on the bipartisan way in which they have been dealing with the impacts of the fire. It heralds a new era when political parties can come together following such a terrible tragedy and work together for the benefit of the community. I must mention Fran Bailey, whose Federal electorate was seriously impacted by the fires.

She has been so professional. I do not know how I would have reacted if it had happened in my electorate. You cannot predict how you would respond to such an experience, but you would want to be there for your community, flying the flag as it went under. I have probably said sufficient for the Victorian Parliament to know that the 48,000-odd constituents of the Burrinjuck electorate and their families send their deepest sympathies and condolences to the Victorian Parliament and to all the people of Victoria. We wish them well in their recovery. I am sure if there is anything the Victorian people require from New South Wales we will be only too willing to oblige our friends.

The SPEAKER: I take this opportunity to make a few comments from the chair. Like all members who have spoken in the debate, led by the Premier, the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of The Nationals, I offer sincere condolences not only from me and my family but from the House and the Parliament of New South Wales to the families, friends and communities affected by what can only be described as the tragedy caused by the bushfires in the State of Victoria. More than 200 lives have been claimed and this devastating tragedy has left in its wake significant damage to numerous homes, businesses, farming properties and personal effects.

Like many other members, I recognise and appreciate the work not only of the volunteer fire services from Victoria and interstate but of all the emergency services volunteers and community groups and organisations that came together to fight the fires and to assist others in the most desperate circumstances. They worked tirelessly throughout the crisis. Even when the intensity of the images on our television sets waned, the fires continued, and the volunteers fought day and night to save lives and property. In such a difficult time—and much has been said on this subject—it was heartening to witness the Australian spirit, camaraderie, fellowship and the banding together of the nation through countless volunteers, contributions, donations and appeals, and extraordinary expressions of condolence. It touched many people and my local community, like the communities of every member in this place—from larger regional centres to remote rural towns—conducted fundraising appeals to provide assistance.

This tragedy touched every Australian deeply, and reached beyond our shores as well. The extent of the disaster has been felt internationally, including in the United Kingdom, the United States of America, New Zealand, Singapore, Spain, India, Turkey, Indonesia and Japan—to name just a few of the many countries that have contacted the Commonwealth and State governments. I have received numerous messages from Speakers in other jurisdictions offering their condolences through this Parliament and through my office. The Clerk and I were in the Victorian Parliament to hear speeches on the condolence motion moved on its first sitting day this year. I was in the gallery, representing the Parliament and the people of New South Wales. I noted with interest the comments by the member for Burrinjuck about the bipartisanship that followed this devastating event. I will share with the House a small incident that occurred during that debate.

The Premier and the Leader of the Opposition made very emotional speeches—outstanding speeches—and demonstrated great leadership on behalf of the people of Victoria. The Premier was very emotional during his speech. In a very shaky voice, he acknowledged an Opposition member, who simply raised his finger in response to the Premier's acknowledgement. The Premier acknowledged that Opposition member—he obviously named his seat—for knocking on the door of his parents' home, which was in the member's constituency, to check that they were okay. As I was sitting in the Speaker's gallery, I thought to myself what a great democracy we have that an Opposition member of Parliament would make the effort to ensure that the Premier's parents were okay. I saw members of Parliament, in a distressed state, openly embracing on the floor of Parliament. The event clearly shattered the Victorian community, and its Parliament reflected that devastation before our eyes. I took the opportunity to meet and eat with some members of Parliament. They were still devastated on behalf of their communities and, like all members here, I shared their loss and grief. We offer them our condolences.

A great deal of debate has occurred, and will continue to occur, about what needs to be done in the future. I hope the spirit of bipartisanship we have seen recently follows through to that debate. It is important that, with such an enormous loss of life and property, we consider the national interest when taking corrective action and share as much as we can in order to support our colleagues in Victoria and their families and friends during this devastating time. As Speaker of the New South Wales Parliament I say on behalf of members to our Victorian colleagues: We are with you and will remain with you throughout the whole rebuilding process. New South Wales sends its condolences to you.

Mr ROBERT FUROLO (Lakemba) [11.00 a.m.]: Mr Speaker, your comments were very nicely put. To paraphrase Martin Luther King Junior, the true measure of the community lies not in where it stands in moments of comfort or convenience, but where it stands in moments of challenge and controversy. By this measure, the community of Australia can stand tall. The events in Victoria almost defy imagination: the loss, damage, devastation and tragedies resulting from these fires have been well documented. Many members have spoken eloquently about the impacts of the fires in their community and their understanding of the issues. On behalf of the people of the Lakemba electorate I pay my respects and offer my condolences to all those affected by the tragedy. I will briefly discuss the way in which my local community and the nation as a whole have responded to this tragedy.

Schools across my electorate immediately swung into action: fundraising efforts started almost instantly. Teachers and school communities helped local students understand the gravity of the events, and the kids responded by suggesting ways they could help to raise money. At Beverly Hills North Public School, which my two children attend, students held a mufti day to raise money. Similar events were held at schools across the electorate and the money raised went to help the victims in Victoria. As I have said previously in this place, the Lakemba electorate is extremely diverse and no greater contrast with the areas affected by the fires could be imagined. Lakemba, obviously, is a very metropolitan area characterised by many units and houses, whereas the areas affected by the fires are much more rural.

More than 150 different nationalities live together in a harmonious community in Lakemba—living their Australian dream. Sadly, there are those who assume that this diversity is a barrier to Australian values of mateship and supporting those who need a hand. I am pleased to report that nothing could be further from the truth. A large number of local ethnically based community groups have demonstrated their commitment to the broader Australian community by digging deep and raising money. The Lakemba-based Lebanese Muslim Association passed the hat around after its Friday prayers and raised $5,000. The Chinese Australian Services Society also pulled together, recognising the needs of people affected by the fires. Canterbury City Council contributed $10,000 to the Red Cross on behalf of the people of the City of Canterbury, and council staff held a sausage sizzle to raise money as well.

Other local groups who wanted to contribute to the families affected include the Lakemba-based Mission of Hope, which held a family day to raise money; the Canterbury Harmony Group raised money from its members; the Future Movement Australia at Punchbowl conducted a blood drive; and the businesses and Chamber of Commerce in Belfield conducted a sausage sizzle and trivia night, raising over $4,000. These examples of my community rallying to help fellow Australians show the very best of the Australian spirit. People, families, children, and religious, business and community groups from all backgrounds have identified with people unknown to them in another State and honoured the values of our shared citizenship.

Finally, I acknowledge the firefighters, volunteers and community organisations who worked and fought valiantly to protect homes and lives across Victoria. Their dedication and sacrifices will inspire us for years to come. I acknowledge also the contribution of the New South Wales State Government by providing assistance and support to the families and victims through the volunteers and officials assisting in fighting the fires in Victoria.

Mr BRAD HAZZARD (Wakehurst) [11.04 a.m.]: I join with my colleagues from both sides of the House in expressing condolences to the people of Victoria who recently survived through the most difficult of circumstances with the extensive bushfires across particularly south-eastern and north-eastern Victoria. My family actually came from Victoria. Although I was born and raised on the northern beaches of New South Wales, my parents and grandparents came from Victoria. Indeed, my aunt Ivy Ractliffe still lives in north-west Victoria in a little place called Sea Lake. My grandparents on my mother's side, Roy D'alton and Annie Victoria D'alton, actually came from the Mallee country.

The devastation of the recent Victorian bushfires stretches beyond the images we have seen on television. For me it is a personal experience in the sense that for a number of years I lived in Victoria. I attended school in Frankston for a time and lived in Mordialloc for a period. The areas that were subjected to these fires were those I know well from my youth when I visited with my grandparents on weekend trips. Places such as Healesville were under threat in the days following 7 and 8 February. The number of families that have suffered defies belief. I understand that at this stage we know that at least 210 people died and at least 500 more were injured. We know that 100 people have been admitted to hospitals across Victoria with burns, 20 of whom are still in a critical condition—of course, this is now five weeks after the full fury of the fires were felt. As at 25 February Victoria police estimate the number of people still missing may reach over 30.

As recently as the day before yesterday I spoke to my brother, who lives in an area north of Newcastle, and he was telling me that a distant relative of his wife remains missing. That is the sort of issue we need to understand: some families still do not know the whereabouts of their loved ones. Nothing could be worse than not knowing the fate of a close family member. Certainly, the horror of having someone die is bad enough, but not knowing for sure and not knowing where that person is perpetuate the grief and horror. The fires have destroyed at least 2,029 homes—3,500 structures in total—and damaged many thousands more. Many towns north-east of Melbourne have been badly damaged or almost completely destroyed, including Kinglake, Marysville, Narbethong, Strathewen and Flowerdale. Many houses in the towns of Steels Creek, Humevale, Wandong, Callignee and Koornalla also were burnt, and fatalities were recorded at each location. The fires have left an estimated 7,500 people homeless.

It is with great sadness that we acknowledge the importance of sharing our concern with all Victorian residents. I assume very few people in Victoria have not had some association with people from the areas that have been so devastated. Many people across Australia know people who have been killed or injured or who have had their properties destroyed. It has been a time that has brought many people together. Because of that bringing of people together, it has also brought out the greatness of Australian society. Thousands of Country Fire Authority members have assisted and fought the fires in Victoria. More than 250 New South Wales Rural Fire Service front-line firefighters, 50 tankers in 10 strike teams and more than 300 New South Wales police, including specialist officers from the forensic services branch and the missing persons unit, travelled south to assist our Victorian friends.

New South Wales taxpayers, through the Government, presented a cheque for $1 million for the Bushfire Appeal and many more local people have donated vast amounts of money to support those in Victoria. Out of this great adversity we have seen the triumphs of the human spirit. Residents from all over Australian put their hands in their pockets to support our Victorian friends. It would be remiss of me, bearing in mind that I was shadow Minister for Emergency Services, not to acknowledge our amazing Rural Fire Service in New South Wales. At latest count we had close to 70,000 volunteers. The Warringah-Pittwater Rural Fire Service has a number of brigades and week after week, month after month, year after year volunteers continue to give of their time to provide protection to residents against the constant threat of bushfires.

New South Wales Fire Brigades, which works closely with the Rural Fire Service, is an integral part of any response to fire, but today I want to focus on the volunteers. The fact the New South Wales has so many volunteers prepared to give of themselves is a measure of a society that has a very healthy approach to protecting its own. On Saturday I will be attending the annual general meeting, as I always do, of the Beacon Hill Rural Fire Brigade, the brigade located in my electorate of Wakehurst. In another week or two I will attend the opening of the new headquarters at Terrey Hills. On each of these occasions I have the opportunity to stand with people who are giants in our community because they are prepared to give of themselves in a voluntary basis.

In Australia we often take our volunteers for granted. We almost need to move outside Australia and travel overseas to receive the very strong message that our country is not typical of the rest of the world. I shall not name particular countries but I recollect a conversation in a country not far from our borders where I talked to government representatives about the culture of volunteerism in Australia. The eyebrows were raised and there was a look of surprise because the government officials could not understand that our community members could volunteer so willingly nor that we have such range of volunteer services, such as the Rural Fire Service, volunteer rescue organisations, royal life saving, surf lifesaving and many other volunteer organisations.

It is appropriate as we reflect on the horrors and tragedy of the Victorian bushfires that we also celebrate the contribution of our volunteers to ensuring that as far as is humanly possible our Victorian friends had the support and assistance they needed. On the northern beaches—and I do not think my colleagues the members for Manly, Pittwater and Davidson will mind my acknowledging their electorates as well—there has been an outpouring of grief but also an outpouring of support. Almost every local school on the northern beaches has held fundraising activities. Communities outside the schools have held fundraisers. The latest function I attended was at Duffys Forest in the electorate of Pittwater, where 150 people came together on a wet Sunday night to raise money to support the Victorian bushfire victims.

This coming Saturday night I will attend a fundraising function at Dee Why RSL that radio commentator Jason Morrison and former member of the Legislative Council David Oldfield will co-host. I expect that many northern beaches residents will attend to provide financial support to the Victorians. This is a time when each of us in the Parliament has an opportunity to reflect on the amazing contribution of volunteers and on the immense need of families who are still suffering and will suffer for years to come as a result of these horrendous bushfires. Again I express my condolences and those of my family and my community to the people of Victoria.

Dr ANDREW McDONALD (Macquarie Fields—Parliamentary Secretary) [11.17 a.m.]: Over a month has passed since one of the darkest days in Australia's history. The current number is 210 dead and 500 injured, some of whom still remain in intensive care units. This, the greatest loss of life in peacetime Australia, is a tragedy that should never be repeated. The horror of this tragedy is incomprehensible. Whole communities have been flattened, and these communities will never be the same again. By comparison, the Black Friday fires in 1939 caused 71 deaths, the 1967 Tasmanian fires caused 59 deaths and the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires caused 47 deaths.

On behalf of everyone in my electorate I pass on their deepest condolences to the loved ones of those who died and those who were injured. We offer comfort to those who remain and who yearn for those who have been lost. From now the shock will pass but the realisation of what we all have lost will remain forever. And for many the hardest part is yet to come. We salute also those who have helped so far. They have been distinguished by their professionalism and dedication. The word "hero" does not do them justice and they give meaning to the saying: It is in the shadow of each other that the people live. For example, John Pisani from Glenfield is a volunteer in Casula Bushfire Brigade. He is a motor mechanic for the NRMA. Casula Bush Fire Brigade was in the first strike force team to go to Victoria and was there at four o'clock on the Sunday at Beechworth.

About 10 people from Casula Bush Fire Brigade went and they were away from their families for five days. They performed tasks of property protection and hazard reduction approximately one kilometre ahead of the fire front. John describes 30 to 40 centimetre pieces of flaming bark dropping from the sky. The ground was tinder dry and ignited straightaway. The only water that was available for use was dam water because there was no reticulated supply. The Casula Bush Fire Brigade was not the only bush fire brigade from Macarthur or south-west Sydney; others also went to Victoria. John's bosses at the NRMA telephoned him to thank him.

John Pisani is an amazing man. He is a volunteer at the Casula Bush Fire Brigade and spends approximately eight hours a week performing volunteer duties for that bush fire brigade. He pays for approximately one tank of liquefied petroleum gas [LPG] per week, laundering of his uniforms, and protective equipment, such as sunglasses, from his own pocket. Another volunteer is Jaime Marquez, who is the captain of the Casula Bush Fire Brigade. As he says, the main concern of bush fire brigade volunteers is for the entire Australian community. They care for others, and that is why they give up their time on a weekly basis and put themselves at risk.

At the Macquarie Fields fire station, I spoke to station officer Rod Holdsworth. Staff from that station also went down to Victoria with the New South Wales Fire Brigades and were involved in fighting fires in the Yea area. At the Horningsea Park fire station I spoke to Station officer Mick Costin. David Smith also went to Victoria to fight fires. As Mick Costin said, the staff of fire stations know exactly how difficult firefighting is because they have been through it and have seen it for themselves. Morningsea Park and Macquarie Fields fire stations both were involved in New South Wales Fire Brigades fundraising.

I acknowledge the excellent speech made this morning by the Speaker, who reminded us all that this Parliament has a duty of care owed to those who died. We must learn from tragedy. I look towards the Victorian royal commission to examine advice given to people in bushfire-affected areas, such as whether to leave the area or stay and protect their property, and to examine the science rather than the emotion of fire reduction measures. As the Leader of The Nationals, Andrew Stoner, stated in his excellent speech, we need to learn to live with the dichotomy that this land represents.

The greatest tribute we could pay to those who have died is to have a bipartisan, non-political response to the issues, instead of descending into inertia that mutual blame casting will create. We need to examine where we live, how we live, and what we can do to prevent future deaths. From past events, we can learn about future, similar fires—and they will occur. The greatest tragedy will be if the current tragedy is ever repeated.

Mr FRANK TERENZINI (Maitland) [11.22 a.m.]: I support the condolence motion and I do so sadly, but proudly, as a member of the New South Wales Parliament, along with all my colleagues. Over the past week I have heard several members of this House attempt as best they can to express the level and intensity of grief they felt when speaking about what happened on 7 February, which has become known as Black Saturday. It has been clear during speeches made in support of the condolence motion that members of the House had significant difficulty in finding the words and phrases that truly reflected the way they felt and conveyed their thoughts and sentiments. I am in a position that is no different from theirs: I found it very difficult to come to terms with the events and to accept that they had occurred.

As members of Parliament, we have a facile use of the English language. We usually have no problem expressing ourselves—I emphasise "usually". We are wordsmiths, and we are paid to be able to express ourselves. But on this occasion we have struggled to find the right words to express how we feel, given the intensity of the tragedy that has occurred. I represent a community in which dealing with natural disasters has been a way of life over many decades. Maitland experiences floods. It is situated on the floodplain of a river, and floods occur frequently. We have lost many lives through such disasters. We have learned to work together as a community in very difficult times. We have gained an appreciation of the effects of natural disasters.

However, the events accompanying the Victorian bushfires far outweighed and overshadowed anything that Maitland has ever had to endure. During Black Saturday Maitland was preparing for a flood, but in Queensland our fellow Australians were watching as whole towns were washed away by floodwaters, and Queenslanders had to face their own sets of problems—we could not have a better reminder of the visually stark contrasts that the Australian climate has to offer. The recent natural disasters have sent a clear and unequivocal message that has hit the Australian people with staggering force: how brutal Australia's contrasting climate conditions can be. On the morning of 7 February I attended a function and in the afternoon I spent time with my family.

As I listened to the news and watched the televised images of the Victorian bushfires, the true nature of the disaster began to unfold. I found it hard to come to terms with what I saw. It was a disaster of unimaginable proportions comprising 48 degrees Celsius heat, gale force winds, 4 per cent humidity, and walls of flame 50 metres high with concomitant ferocity produced by the combined conditions. The result was that 210 of our fellow Australians fell victim, and many others were injured. In addition, 2,000 homes, longstanding hotels, shops, pharmacies, meeting places and parks were all destroyed, and with them went the entire soul of communities. The Victorian bushfires were a profound tragedy.

Victorian bushfire victims number in their many thousands in the areas directly affected and in surrounding areas. Their communities will never be the same again. The towns that were lost will never be rebuilt to be the way they were, and people who live in those towns in surrounding districts will be rebuilding their lives for many years to come. The rescue effort involves not only the combined efforts of our emergency services but also the whole Australian community. If there is anything good to come out of this disaster that we can hold onto and be immensely proud of, it is the way in which our nation reacted. We grieved, but then we mobilised to do what Australians do so well—we came to the aid of our mates in times of need.

Fundraising collected approximately $160 million, and people from all corners of the nation and all walks of life contributed. The people of Maitland did their bit by providing assistance. The Maitland Rural Fire Service provided five tankers, group vehicles and 45 personnel in two trips. The Maitland Fire Brigade also provided personnel on a rotational basis. The State Emergency Service remained in Maitland to look after the areas that were expected to be affected by floods. Aside from those significant efforts, I wish to bring to the attention of the House the efforts of a particular group of people in my electorate, our school children, of whom I am very proud. Fundraising by school children took place right throughout Australia, and the efforts of school children are as important for their symbolic significance as they are for their practical effect in terms of financial and in-kind assistance.

The community of Maitland is very proud of the efforts of its children. We are very proud that our younger generation is carrying on the Maitland tradition of coming to the aid of those who are in less fortunate circumstances. I will read onto the record the Catholic, public and independent schools that participated in fundraising: All Saints College, St Mary's campus, approximately $3,000 and boxes of school supplies; All Saints College, St Joseph's campus, $2,150; All Saints College, St Peter's campus, $1,355; Ashtonfield Public School, $500; Bolwarra Public School, $1,320; Francis Greenway High School, $1,500; Gillieston Public School, four boxes and two backpacks full of stationery; Hunter River Community School, $399; Hunter Valley Grammar School, $4,673; Iona Public School, which is a very small school, $174, with the community of Woodville raising a further $385; and the Lochinvar Public School, $985.

The list of schools that participated in fundraising also includes: Maitland Grossman High School, $4,736; Maitland Public School, $1,058; Maitland High School, $5,200; Maitland Christian School, $1,237; Metford Public School, $4,700; Millers Forest Public School, $147; Morpeth Public School, $1,150; Rutherford Public School, $1,080; Rutherford Technology High School, $2,000; St John's Primary School, $2,250; St Joseph's Primary School, $1,725; St Paul's Primary School, $1,000; Telarah Public School, $1,200; Tenambit Public School, $2,000. Approximately $40,000 was raised by the Maitland school children. That is a fantastic effort and it is clearly a sign that the younger generation in Maitland is carrying on the Maitland adults' tradition of coming to the aid of those who are in less fortunate circumstances.

In Australia we are really blessed with volunteers. I fully concur with the member for Wakehurst about one of the great differences between Australia and countries around the world. I, too, have been overseas and have seen the way other countries operate. One thing that is in stark contrast is the level of volunteering we have in Australia—people who give up their time, spend their own money, and forgo their personal commitments to help others. In this case our volunteers really shine, both in Victoria and New South Wales. I know that the Rural Fire Service personnel in Maitland were ready, they took their rotational shifts, and they helped out.

On behalf of the people of Maitland, who are a strongly bound community, I pass on our sincere and heartfelt condolences to all those affected in every way: the sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, grandparents, uncles and aunties, close and distant relations, close and distant friends, communities, and all the members of those communities who have suffered, and who will continue to grieve and suffer, and feel the hurt and the everlasting scars that these events have inflicted. Whilst life for us will go on, as life for them will also go on, it is ever important to continually remind ourselves of the fragility of life, of how lucky we are to live in a country such as Australia, where we can live in comfort, although that is hollow to some at present, and can be confident that the Australian people will always be there to support one another in times of need.

      Mr ALAN ASHTON (East Hills) [11.31 a.m.]: I want to place on record my condolences to the families and friends of the victims of the tragic bushfires in Victoria on what will now be known forever as Black Saturday, 7 February 2009. I also pass on sincere condolences on behalf of my constituents in the East Hills electorate and also my family. The fires killed more people than in any other non-war disaster in Australia's history, certainly in the history of white occupation of this continent.
I remember that the week before this fire event the temperatures in Melbourne and parts of Victoria were the highest on record. Members may recall that the week before the fires Melbourne had its hottest day ever recorded. But to my recollection the media mostly focused on the traditional scenes of kids and families at the beach or people cooling off under hoses. I recall seeing in the media pictures of people jumping off the pier at St Kilda and places such as that. That is a memory I have before the fires: the traditional scene depicted in the media of kids at the beach, very hot weather, and air-conditioners running at full throttle.
I recall that on that Saturday night the news of the fires was that 14 people were confirmed dead, with up to 40 killed. This stunned me at the time, but now these figures would almost seem acceptable—as inappropriate as that comment may seem—as we now know that over 210 people have lost their lives. More than 2,000 homes were destroyed. These figures are remarkable in the context of Australia's history. More than 500 people were injured, and some are still in a critical condition as I speak. I do not doubt that the State of Victoria will take many years to physically and emotionally overcome the tragedy of these bushfires.

I live in an area where bushfires happen, on the Georges River. In 1994 I had to evacuate my elderly parents from their home on the river to escape fire. As we were leaving, a tree branch fell across the track out of their property and we had to get out of the car to move a huge branch. The delay did not affect our escape, but that type of incident would have played a role in taking so many lives on 7 February in Victoria. Tragically, people tried to leave in their cars at the last minute, but the cars crashed and many victims were found dead in them.

There has been some discussion about the policy of leaving early or staying to fight a fire—that is, the idea that you protect your home and seek refuge in your home or a home nearby. I believe that the inferno that engulfed those small towns and villages defied any really effective strategy to fight the fires or even escape. In New South Wales we have become used to having a fire season every year. When our honourable colleague the member for Blue Mountains, Phil Koperberg, was in charge of the Rural Fire Service, every year there was a warning. Every year there were dry conditions, and there had not been enough burn-off. Due to the fact that we had drought the burn-offs could not be done. Phil would always warn everybody. People would rally and fight the bushfires, particularly in the Blue Mountains and in northern parts of Sydney.

I know there was some tragedy in southern Sydney at that time. The Sutherland area always has a problem with bushfires. Other suburbs in southern Sydney lost homes, and lives were tragically lost. But what was particularly noticeable about the Victorian fires was how these massively wooded areas—which, when I looked up on a Google map a couple of days later, were all green when the pictures were taken—were completely destroyed. With only one road in and one road out, it would be incredibly difficult to avoid such tragedy. I will not try to describe it, but other members have described the fire jumping ahead hundreds of metres, almost kilometres, and cars racing away but the fire beating them.

It reminds me of something my father told me years ago. As I said, we live on the Georges River. My father told me about a major bushfire in the 1950s or 1960s in which gum trees exploded when eucalypt oil ignited in the tree tops and the fire raced on at an unimaginable speed. No doubt similar events will be described in the royal commission hearing. The strategy of either staying and maybe fighting the fire, or leaving, is easily expressed in words, but it is an extremely difficult decision for those who have to react to an approaching fire. Unfortunately, some may have made what they thought was the right decision but were caught by the fire and died; others may have made the wrong decision but luck saved them.

On the morning after the fire a gentleman and his wife came to my office with an offer from workers at Botany to fill a container with necessary equipment to take to Victoria. At that stage the Red Cross only wanted cash donations. It was too soon to be able to move appropriate equipment into Victoria, and it was too soon to know what physical assets were needed. The people had tears in their eyes: they felt so frustrated that they simply wanted to do something to help, and eventually they did. One of my Australian Labor Party branches made a substantial financial donation to the Red Cross. My family and countless others in the East Hills electorate donated to the Red Cross to aid the victims. I think $260 million has been raised, which is amazing.

Tragically and unbelievably, some of these fires were deliberately lit. I know that in New South Wales we have very high penalties for arson causing death, and I hope Victoria does as well. It is one thing to cope with a bushfire that has been caused by nature, through a combination of massive heat, dry undergrowth and lack of humidity, but it is hard to believe that people in our society would deliberately light a fire knowing that it could cause death. They must suffer from unimaginable mental illness, and their behaviour is beyond our understanding.

I praise the firefighters who battled the fires. Professional firefighters fought the fires, as did volunteers, who came from all over Victoria and also from New South Wales. The member for Macquarie Fields mentioned some of them. I know that members of this Parliament, including the member for Wakehurst, the member for Campbelltown and the member for Heathcote, are active members of their local bushfire brigades. On many occasions, looking across the river from where I live, I have been glad that there is a fire station at Sandy Point, in Alison Megarrity's Menai electorate. The firefighters at that station have put out fires that have been roaring along that side of the river.
    Indeed, fires have jumped the river. During the last major fire in my electorate the fire simply jumped the river. People think the banks of rivers are a long way apart. Some say that the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor would not be a risk if threatened by bush fires because it is far away, on the other side of the river. But if you have a good look at the Georges River, you could hit a nine iron across from one side to the other; the river is very narrow. The bends in some rivers allow ember to jump straight across. A house at the back of my house and another just two doors down were burned down. The owners had a hose but were not able to prepare in time even though the fire was on the other side of the river. Their house burnt down, but they have rebuilt.

    I congratulate the Red Cross on its outstanding efforts. The Red Cross readily took on the major role of coordinating the aid that was and is still being provided in Victoria. I thank the ordinary Australians who donated such huge amounts to help rebuild the houses and, if possible, the lives of the survivors of this inferno that destroyed so much of the heart and soul of the Victoria countryside. Unfortunately, the words of Dorothy Mackellar's poem are still apt today. While Victoria burned, northern Queensland was metres under water. As the member for Wakehurst said, Australia is a diverse country. Previously in this place I have referred to our culture of volunteerism. Some countries have a culture of philanthropy—America is one—but there is no better country than Australia, where people stop what they are doing and help other people through volunteer organisations.

    As the member for Hornsby has said, one can never put a figure on the amount of effort Australians put into volunteering. It is incredible. The member for Wagga Wagga would agree because volunteerism is probably even more important in country areas, where services are not as readily available as they are in city areas. I shall conclude by referring to possibly the most touching and emotional moments of the bushfire tragedy in Victoria. This may seem trite, but to me it was more heart-rending than some of the scenes we tended to become used to after four or five days watching the tragedy unfolding and the death toll increasing. I even kept a note in my diary of the number of deaths, which increased day by day. Everyone would have seen the iconic photograph, which was shown around the world, of the firefighter giving the burnt koala—since named Sam—a drink of water from more than one plastic bottle. It is an amazing photograph. As we know, koalas usually get their fluid from gum leaves.

    The koala must have been desperately ill to drink straight out of a bottle from a firefighter. Koalas are not necessarily an easy animal to engage with. That photograph showed us all of man's humanity to man. It also shows our humanity to our native animals in Australia. Perhaps more than one million native animals died in this tragedy. While we are obviously thinking of people first, and houses and property, the picture showed man still looking after our native animals. Further words seem unnecessary and almost inappropriate. In conclusion, I express my condolences and those of my family and my electorate of East Hills to all those in Victoria who suffered so badly.

    Ms MARIE ANDREWS (Gosford) [11.42 a.m.]: It is with great sadness that I speak to the condolence motion moved by the Premier, and pay my respects on behalf of my electorate of Gosford to those who lost their lives in the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria on 7 February 2009. The devastating effects from the fires will be felt for many years to come as families and communities rebuild from the ashes. At least 210 people lost their lives and several others were severely injured. Over 400,000 hectares have been burnt out, 2,029 properties have been destroyed, and countless numbers of domestic animals, livestock and wildlife have been killed. Many of those who lost their homes are adamant that they will rebuild again in the same area. I can understand and sympathise with them, as I am sure other members do as well. It is pleasing to hear reports that recent rains in Victoria have helped in reducing the ferocity of the burning fires. Firefighters have worked around the clock to keep fires within containment lines. Fire authorities have announced that the worst of Victoria's bushfire season is over and communities can start to rebuild.

    It has been heartening to witness the outpouring of support for the victims of the bushfires from around Australia and, indeed, the world. The residents of my electorate of Gosford have joined in the generosity of spirit that has gripped the nation. Examples of this kindness include fundraisers for the victims, as well as for the animals and wildlife carers. Gosford Race Club has donated gate proceeds from its race meeting held on 26 February 2009 to the appeal; Woy Woy Rotary Club raised $6,700; Killcare, Ocean Beach and Umina surf clubs have raised $10,000; the Peninsula Village Retirement Centre has raised more than $3,800 for the Victorian bushfire appeal; and the Catholic parish of Woy Woy peninsula donated more than $5,000 to the St Vincent de Paul Society Victorian bushfire appeal. That is just to mention a few.

    Upcoming events include a disaster relief bushfire appeal concert on Friday 27 March, to be held at the Diggers at the Entrance and involving many Central Coast musicians who are donating their time, with well-known Central Coast resident Chris King as the emcee for the evening. Central Coast regional services are also organising a walk on Sunday 22 March 2009, and I hope to participate in that. It costs $15 to register, and participants will walk from Woy Woy to Gosford, around the bike track and end up at Gosford waterfront, where there will be entertainment, stalls and displays from the New South Wales Fire Brigades, New South Wales Police and the Rural Fire Service. Many schools in my electorate have been fundraising in a variety of ways with carwashes, concerts, mufti days and the sending of condolence cards. Umina Public School is using the money it has raised to support a Victorian school teacher who lost everything.

    These activities and others on the Central Coast are just a handful of examples of the way that Australians have banded together to support those who, through no fault of their own, have lost their homes, their possessions and, worse than ever, a loved one. At every community event I have attended since the bushfires, people have expressed to me their sadness and sorrow about the loss of life and heartbreak for so many who have been affected. It is with this in mind that I provided a condolence book in my electorate office, giving people an opportunity to send their thoughts to the victims of the bushfires. I have also signed the condolence book here in Parliament House on behalf of my constituents of Gosford. It makes me proud to be an Australian when I hear stories of children willing to give up their lunch money and many people giving whatever little they could to help those in need.

    The bush is a beautiful, mysterious, serene and sometimes dangerous place, yet it is uniquely Australian. My electorate of Gosford contains many national parks, State forests and numerous nature reserves, including Brisbane Water National Park, Popran National Park and Dharug National Park. Over time, many communities on the Central Coast have faced the threat of a wildfire, and in recent decades some have experienced the extreme conditions of a firestorm. The Gosford rural fire district spans an area of more than 1,000 square kilometres and is made up of 20 Rural Fire Service brigades, 920 volunteers and eight full-time staff. A contingent of these volunteer firefighters from Gosford went to Victoria to assist with the fires for a five-day stay at the end of February. Local Rural Fire Service volunteers responded enthusiastically to the call for help. Another group from the Gosford area that travelled to assist in the fighting of the fires was from the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Six firefighters from the National Parks and Wildlife Service spent four days in Victoria assisting in back-burning exercises to secure containment lines around the Healesville area.

    Recently the Deputy Premier mentioned in the House that she had travelled to Gosford to thank those firefighters, and I place on record my appreciation to them also. Gosford police sergeant Glenn Williams from Brisbane Water Local Area Command also travelled to Victoria to assist, where he led a team of eight other officers trained in disaster victim identification. Whilst firefighters from around Australia and indeed the world fought to control the blazes in Victoria, local Gosford Rural Fire Service firefighters, along with firefighters from the New South Wales Fire Brigades, were responding to a fire in the Brisbane Water National Park at Peats Ridge. The Peats Ridge fire saw 200 hectares of bushland burnt in Brisbane Water National Park, with more than 280 firefighters battling to control the blaze, which threatened about 200 homes.

    Fortunately there was no loss of life or major property loss due to this fire, and the firefighters managed to get it under control after three days, with back-burning, fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters dropping fire retardant, and bulldozers constructing access lines for the firefighters. I place on record my appreciation to all those involved in controlling the Peats Ridge fire. On behalf of the constituents of the Gosford electorate I thank all those firefighters and other specialist front-line special personnel from the Rural Fire Service, the NSW Fire Brigades, the New South Wales Police Force, the State Emergency Service and the Ambulance Service of New South Wales who went to Victoria to assist in the worst bushfires in that State's history, and Australia's worst natural disaster. I also express my sincere condolences and those of the Gosford electorate to all the victims of the Victorian bushfires.

    Debate adjourned on motion by Ms Tanya Gadiel and set down as an order of the day for a future day.

    ASSISTANT-SPEAKER (Mr Grant McBride): Order! Government business having concluded, the House will now proceed to committee reports.