Australia is in a deep state of shock at the moment. More than 130 people are dead, 3 towns have been razed, at least 700 homes destroyed, 5,000 people are homeless and 300,000 hectares have been burnt out. With ever passing hour the tolls rise like some macabre medal tally. Our humour still shines through with one man saying he got out with his arse hairs singed.
And the situation is far from over. As I drove home tonight listening to ABC News Radio they were broadcasting the fire alerts. It was still going after about five minutes. Town after town, region after region. Have your fire plan ready.* Decide early if you’re going to leave, if you’re in your car and get stuck do not get out. Get down low, cover yourself with a blanket. Do not wear synthetic clothing. On and on and on.
At the other end of the continent they are suffering from flooding rains. One town has been cut off and flood waters are still rising after seven days. S.e.v.e.n.
Today our Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered a motion of condolence in the House of Representatives. I happened to be in the car as it was broadcast. I almost had to pull over. Her voice quavered through most of it.
I have tried to find an audio link to it but can’t, below is the speech which I found from the Minsters Media Centre. It is long but I urge you to read it. It expresses so eloquently what we are all feeling and what has been going on. The photos are from the SMH website but the ABC site is also excellent for information and insight.
Condolence Speech – Victorian Fires
I move that the House
1. extends its deepest sympathies to families and loved ones of those Australians killed in the weekend’s tragic bushfires in Victoria;
2. records its deep regret at the human injury, the loss of property and the destruction of communities caused by the weekend’s fires;
3. praises the work of emergency services, volunteers and community members in assisting friends and neighbours in this time of need; and
4. acknowledges the profound impact on those communities affected and the role of governments and the Australian community in assisting their recovery and rebuilding.
I offer the deepest and most sincere condolences of this House and our Nation’s Parliament to those families suffering most, to the communities lost and to a State that will never be the same.
A tragedy beyond belief, beyond precedent and beyond words.
The 7th of February 2009 will now be remembered as one of the darkest days in Australia’s peacetime history.
The beautiful towns and hamlets of Kinglake, Marysville and Narbethong are no more.
At least 640 homes and their irreplaceable contents – like the photographs of children and memories of family life – have been destroyed.
The weekend’s fires and particularly February 7 2009 is surely Victoria’s blackest time.
While it does not yet have a tragic name, it is blacker than the human tragedies of Black Friday of 1939 and Ash Wednesday of 1983.
And in this dark time, there has been a human cost without comparison.
February 7th 2009 will be remembered as the day when more than 400 fires burnt across the State during the most severe weather conditions recorded.
It will be a day remembered for the lives lost – 107 at last count – and families and communities changed forever.
It will be remembered as the day when fires raged across the State – from Horsham in the West, Bendigo and Beechworth in the North, and in an arc of destruction from West Gippsland to Kinglake and Kilmore.
It will be remembered as a day of tragedy, courage and sheer luck.
Let me share some of the media reports with the House.
The tragedy of Rebecca Buchanan who lost her 15 year-old son “Macca” Mackenzie, nine year-old daughter Neeve and her brother Danny Clark, 37. Two young girls from down the street also perished inside the house of Rebecca’s mother Jenny Clark. Jenny is seriously injured with burns to 30 per cent of her body after she desperately tried to save her grandchildren.
That’s perhaps the greatest tragedy, Mr Speaker: that children were involved.The tragedy of Strathewen resident Mary Avola 67, who told how she lost her husband of four decades Peter after the couple fled their home.
“We were trying to save our house. We had cars lined up out the front and he told me to go,” she said. “He was behind me in another car. He was behind me for a while and we tried to reach the oval but the gates were locked. He just told me to go and that’s the last time I saw him. It was just like World War III. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The courage of Kinglake resident Karen Drenan and her son Jakob. Karen was lying in the bath with her son, neighbour and dog when she realised the front door was on fire. She then put wet blankets over her 10 year-old son Jakob and told him to run to the other side of the road. His shoes had melted so he grabbed a pair of high-heel boots. She said of her son; “He was so brave, he did everything that was screamed at him to do. We called him the high-heeled hero.”
The courage of the stranger who saved Traralgon South resident Eileen Scott and her baby daughter Lily. Eileen had drawn all the blinds on her home to try to protect herself and her daughter Lily from the searing heat when she heard banging at the door and screaming at her to get out. The stranger was Melissa Falzon who got Ms Scott out of the house and picked up little Lily before the house erupted in flames. Ms Scott yesterday called Ms Falzon her angel.
Or the story of Seven month pregnant Nicole Berry who nagged her husband Andrew to build a fire bunker behind the water tank because she was worried that sprinklers would not do enough to protect their timber home. Andrew recalled saying to her: “Stop nagging, I’ll build the bloody thing.” It saved their lives and that of their 14 month old son.
But while we rejoice in the tales of courage and lives saved, unfortunately it’s the tragedy that will collectively remain with us today, and tomorrow and beyond.
As a Melburnian and a Victorian, the reality of the loss took on a familiar face with the death of the revered Brian Naylor and his wife Moiree at their Kinglake West home.
I am one of the millions of Victorians who for years got the news because Brian told us. He was loved and trusted like a reliable uncle.
But of course Brian and Moiree Naylor are just one set of parents, friends and neighbours lost in these tragic events.
Victorian authorities inform us that 107 people are confirmed as deceased.
This total has already outstripped Ash Wednesday of 1983 and Black Friday of 1939 and the grisly reality is that the record number of lives lost will continue to rise.
More bodies will be found and identified by our emergency services.
Burns victims will sadly succumb to their severe injuries, despite the intensive efforts of our health professionals.
We need to brace ourselves for the increase in fatalities and be mindful of the grief and circumstances of those families and communities.
To be clear and frank, it will get worse and Australians need to prepare themselves for more bad news.
In this time of mounting tragedy, we need to extend our support to those fighting the remaining fires particularly in the Beechworth and Yackandandah regions in Victoria’s north east.
The stories of commitment by volunteers in these fires has been extraordinary.
Jason Webb from Kinglake West knows first hand what a remarkable and heroic job the CFA do. After making sure his wife and children were safe, he spent four hours trying to save his house. As one media report stated: “ As he hid behind his hot water system, pointing a hose towards his neighbour’s roof with a wet blanket over his head, Mr Webb said he thought his home was gone. Then someone ran around the corner and said the CFA are here.”
This is just one story of many, and one volunteer act of thousands.
All Australians, whether they are in Victoria, or the capital cities around our nation or in regional and rural communities, have been hit hard by these events and are at one in supporting our emergency services.
To each person who fought these fires, we say thank you.
And most importantly, as a nation and as a community we need to extend our helping hand to rebuild these towns and lives in the weeks and years ahead.
The Australian Government stands shoulder to shoulder with the Victorian Government in this emergency response and rebuilding effort.
To the Premier of Victoria and the people of Victoria: we stand with you.
Under the Commonwealth Disaster Plan, the Australian Government has responded to three requests for assistance: the provision of beds for relief centres; heavy equipment for control lines; and tents and bedding for accommodation.
Emergency payments are being made to help families who have lost their homes to help get a roof over their heads.
Assistance with funeral and medical costs is being provided to those families that have lost loved ones or who have family members that are seriously injured.
These payments are being made through Centrelink and are available from today . The Australian Government Victorian fires hotline 180 22 11 has been established to take claims and enquiries.
And I would ask that community members with non urgent Centrelink queries to desist from making calls in the coming days.
The Australian and Victorian Governments have established a $10 million Community Recovery Fund to assist the recovery effort. The fund will cover the immediate costs of cleanup and restoration of community infrastructure.
The Victorian Bushfire Relief Fund has also been established and the Australian and Victorian Governments have each donated an additional $2million.
As this emergency unfolds, communities are being identified for assistance under the Government’s Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements.
Through Natural Disaster Relief assistance the Government can help with rebuilding essential infrastructure and providing assistance to local businesses to help them get back on their feet.
The Australian Defence Forces are ready to further assist the Victorian authorities with recovery operations. Emergency bedding for fire fighters has been arranged so they can get some rest, as have bulldozers to help deal with the destruction.
The armed forces are also on standby to help with aerial imagery of fire ravaged areas, chainsaw teams to help clear roads, assistance with search operations and transport and temporary site office buildings to house the recovery effort.
But this is only the start of our efforts.
The Prime Minister, the Cabinet and the Government as a whole will do what is required to assist the individuals, the families, the local organisations, the businesses and the communities affected by these tragic events.
The Prime Minister joined the Victorian Premier yesterday to be briefed on the fires and visited Kangaroo Ground and Whittlesea to talk with displaced residents and emergency service personnel. He visited Alexandria earlier today and remains in Victoria now.
The Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs will remain in Melbourne this week to work directly with authorities and our Victorian colleagues such as the Member for Bendigo.
I acknowledge the support of the Leader of the Opposition and the Members opposite to these efforts. I note that he and the Member for McEwen have been in Whittlesea today hearing the impact of these events first hand.
The support of employers is also needed to ensure the release of volunteer firefighters and other emergency personnel to attend these events. Their continued support is crucial to our emergency services effort.
More generally, the community response in the regions who have felt the full force of these fires has been both extraordinary but also consistent with our national character.
This commitment to helping our neighbours and fellow citizens needs to be a national and ongoing one.
I encourage all Australians to make a contribution to the appeals that are underway.
The rebuilding of these lives and communities will take months and years, rather than days and weeks.
And just as the strength of our communities ensured many survived these devastating events, it will be the strength and resilience of the Australian community that will help our fellow citizens rebuild.
Mr Speaker, every one of us here today will do every thing possible can to respond, to rebuild and to make certain that – to the extent we can ever combat nature’s might – such tragedies cannot happen again.
This won’t be easy.
There will be a time for analysis, when we will seek to understand what happened, how it happened and why it happened. But our immediate task is to pull together, as a family, provide comfort and to heal.
Mr Speaker, today, on behalf of the Prime Minister, Members of Parliament and the nation, I want to grieve with those who have lost, pay tribute to the victims and praise the courage of those without whose help, the death toll and the physical destruction would have been much, much worse.
I commend this motion to the House.
* Apparently, after the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983 a lot was changed with how we respond to bush fires and it is very different from how people are told to respond in a forest fire in the US. The rule of thumb in Australia is that the safest place to be is your house. Someone interviewed said that all of them had their fire plans but this fire just appeared from nowhere in the space of five minutes and in the panic people fled, which led to their death. The fire was travelling at over 120km per hour.