Mr RAMSEY (Grey—Government Whip) (17:43): I rise to speak on the bushfires condolence motion today. It has been a challenging time particularly for much of eastern Australia, but right across Australia now as Western Australia is struggling with fires. It’s unsurprising that we’ve had some fires in my electorate of Grey, since it covers over 92 per cent of the state. We are pretty well in drought across a lot of it, and I must say that, by comparison, we haven’t had the incredible tragedies we have seen in the eastern states and to our south in South Australia on Kangaroo Island. I will touch on Kangaroo Island in a little while. But let it be said that we have had our challenges.
On 11 November, two homes were lost in Port Lincoln. A number of buildings and 280 hectares were burnt out. It is a concern that that was in an area on the outskirts of the city where we’ve had, I think, the third fire in about 10 years. That really does bring into question some of those things about local management, I think. It’s like Kangaroo Island. It’s very dense scrubland. It’s pretty inaccessible and, of course, it supports a pretty good fire. I think it’s going to be an issue for urban communities within the regions—to clear areas around their towns. We are going to have to have a serious conversation about it after this year.
It was, in fact, on lower Eyre Peninsula in 2005 that we had the Wangary fires, which razed 93 houses and 316 farm sheds, and burnt 78,000 hectares. There were 150 injuries and nine fatalities. As a ray of hope to those that have been burnt out, let me tell you: you would hardly know it if you went there now. The farms have been repaired, the houses have been rebuilt and, largely, the landscape has been restored. But I can tell you: the human scars remain. It is always particularly close to the hearts of those that have lost family and friends, but it is also the property losses, the grieving—I think it probably goes on for most of their life. They’ve readjusted and they’re getting on with their life and all those things, but you know it’s always there somewhere.
Then we had 20 November last year. That was a dreadful day. We had two fires on Yorke Peninsula and another one on the northern end of Yorke Peninsula at Port Wakefield. The worst was down at Yorketown—the fire at the southern end—where 5,000 hectares of cropping land was burnt. The crops were valued at about $1.3 million. Mercifully, no lives were lost, but 11 homes were destroyed. I have to say that, having driven around the fire scene a couple of days later with the mayor, Darren Braund, meeting volunteers and some locals, not all of the 11 homes were the first residence on the property, if you like. Some of them were older homes; they might have been rentals or whatever. But it occurs to me that it doesn’t matter if you’re renting a house and it doesn’t matter whether one house or 100 were burned: if yours is the house that’s burned and you’ve lost all your belongings, it’s just as big a tragedy as if 100 of them burned. Eleven houses were lost down there.
I’ve got to say, as many others have said, that certainly the district has rallied around those people. And the local farmers—I rate the farmers on their farm appliances very highly. They are often the quickest, the first, to a fire. They’re very valuable and make an enormous difference. Then, with their appliances, the CFS, the SES, the ambos and the Salvos were all there, and the community was generally working together, unsurprisingly. It is what we expect, but it is also what we see.
Then, barely a month later, we were back at it again, this time at Maitland, about 80 or 100 kilometres north of Yorketown. Once again, it was the great work of the fire units and the CFS that averted disaster. Only 1,700 hectares were burnt, but it was a long stretch, with a high potential for breakouts on a number of fronts when the wind shift came through. It took quite a bit of controlling. No homes were lost. The property losses in total were low; however, one farmer was substantially affected, even though his house was saved. I spoke with him recently. He was well insured and will spring back from the experience, but it was clear he was very moved by the help and offers of assistance that had come forward.
During this period we had a fire interstate in Western Australia, near Norseman. It cut the Eyre Highway, which is the main road between Sydney and Perth. It goes through my home town of Kimba. Cars were piled up at Ceduna, Border Village and other places for two weeks, so it was pretty disruptive to the national economy and pretty disruptive to people trying to go about their daily lives—and it was pretty disruptive for people trying to get to work. The effects have been felt there.
Then we had the Kangaroo Island fires. Kangaroo Island, of course, is not in the electorate of Grey; it is in Mayo. But there are many families from my electorate that own properties and operate properties on Kangaroo Island. Some manage them from the mainland, and others have family members down there living on the island. Such is the case with some of our friends. As of a couple of days ago, my friend had spent all but three days of the last month away from home, down on the island, battling the fires that just keep breaking out on the property from smouldering embers—from pastures, in fact, that keep smouldering. You get a bad day, up goes a puff of smoke, and he needs to be there with his workers. Over a long period of time friends who came down from the mainland brought their fire units and were ready to douse those flames when they came up. He contacted me and asked me to come over and have a look and have a chat to the locals and give a hand. He was a bit concerned about some local management issues. I let Rebekha Sharkie know that I was going onto her patch. He thought that maybe there were some lessons to be learned. I visited his property for a couple of days to give a bit of a hand. It was after the second catastrophic day they’d faced down there. We had a big burn out on the western end and it turned around on the second catastrophic day about a week later and was bearing down on the middle of the island. The damage on Kangaroo Island is of a different scale to what we have seen in Grey this year, more like those fires at Wangary in 2005 that I mentioned.
Mercifully, perhaps luckily, on Kangaroo Island there were just two lives lost as a direct result of the fire. A famous gentleman, outback pilot and pioneer tourist legend Dick Lang and his son Clayton, who was one of South Australia’s leading plastic surgeons, tragically lost their lives on the road adjacent to Flinders Chase on the western end of the island. I’ll come back to that in a moment, because I think there’s a lesson to be learned there. Dick had been a great gift to South Australia as he opened up the outback and made excursions for city lovers possible to look at the wonderful things there are in the outback of South Australia—the outback of Grey, I must say.
So, to come to these lessons, this is what my friend wanted me to come over to the island and see. He said, ‘Properties here on the island are generally livestock orientated, and they are crisscrossed by laneways.’ Farmers want to be able to get their sheep in and out of the shearing shed and from one paddock to another, so they put in these 20 to 25 metre wide laneways within their properties. It became quite apparent to him—they’ve been there a number of years now—that farmers as a general rule of thumb turn their sheep out into the pastures in spring and eat down the spring flush. As they work their way through summer and as feed supplies get low then they’ll graze their laneways. He said, ‘It could be as simple as grazing the laneways first and doing a bit of light cultivation down the side of the tracks. We would have a crisscross of firebreaks across all these properties on the island.’ It’s such a simple message. Yet you can see it’s not being done at the moment. I raise these as constructive comments. I’ll round it up in a moment when I get there.
Another thing he talked about was that the road corridors carry heavy vegetation. In fact, this was confirmed by a friend of mine who is a CFS volunteer and who has worked on fires all around Australia. He is one of those blokes who put his hand up and said, ‘Yes, I’ll go.’ He’s a sector commander. He’s worked his way up. My friend would be likely to be in charge of four, five or six fire trucks on the site. It’s his job to make sure the trucks go to the right place to fight the fire and that his people are safe. He came away after the second stint over there, a three-day stint with the fireys, and said, ‘This is the worst one I’ve ever faced.’ The country over there is more inaccessible than any he had faced before. He said, ‘I think I’m getting too old for this.’ I doubt that he is, but he was exhausted by the process. He said, ‘The gullies are so deep that you can’t get the dozers across them.’ Of course the gullies are where the heavy vegetation is, down along the creeks. On Kangaroo Island—it’s one of the things that makes it so beautiful—you drive down the road and you wouldn’t know that there is a paddock on the other side of the scrub not more than 20 metres away, because it is so dense. My friend said that in fact they’ve discovered about five or six farmhouses around their property that they didn’t even know were there, because now they can see through the scrub because it’s burnt. Then he went on to say that, unlike where I come from and he comes from, they don’t have big machinery, so a gate on a farm on Kangaroo Island is typically five metres wide—an iron gate. Where I come from, we would have a 12-metre wire gate, because we have to get decent sized machinery through. If you’ve got a five-metre gate, you only need about a six-metre or seven-metre break off the road through this dense scrub land to get your sheep, your ute, your dog and your motorbikes in and out of the paddock. Consequently, the canopy still joins over. As these fires are coming down the road they’re like fingers. They burn with great velocity and there is no way of stopping them. Then, when the wind turns or the road turns, they break out into the farmlands again. He said, ‘It would be so simple, if we had some 20- to 25-metre breaks at each of these gates.’ Some of them have been pushed in, I must say. People have taken things into their own hands in recent times. When I was talking to my friend, the sector controller, he came up with exactly the same answer. He said, ‘If every half a kilometre we had a 50-metre break on one side of the road and down a bit further, about 500 metres, we had another 50-metre break on the other side of the road, that wouldn’t stop the native wildlife getting around—that wouldn’t stop the koalas; they could easily walk across that little bit—but it would give the firefighters a place to stop the fire, which doesn’t exist at the moment.’ These are the conversations we have to have now.
I said I wanted to talk about Dick Lang again. While I was over there we took the drive through Flinders Chase out to Cape Borda on the western end of the island. I hadn’t really thought about where Dick had perished, and we came across the site. The police had painted on the road. You could see where they panicked. They were trying to get through the smoke and the car had veered here and there, and then Clayton must have jumped and run and they both perished. The tragedy of it was that they were only 25 metres from an open paddock, but there was no way they could get there because of the dense scrub that was alight. If there had been a hole in the roadside vegetation, they probably would have got through it, but we’ll never know, of course.
The reason I bring these things up is I think what we need now on the island is for someone to bring in particular the farmers but also other land managers together now to actually go and have a look at what worked and what didn’t work. What are the lessons we can get out of this to try and make sure that this kind of conflagration does not happen again?
There’s another opportunity. When my friend brought this second farm about six years ago, the old bloke he bought it off said, ‘You’ll have a fire there in six years.’ And it has been six years. My friend said: ‘Why? How do you know that?’ and the bloke said, ‘Because there was a fire there seven years ago and it burns every 13 years.’ My friend said, ‘Why’s that?’ The bloke said, ‘There’s an oily acacia that grows up the creek lines and it burns right out. For 12 years it’s too green to burn, and then it’s ready.’ If something is that predictable, there must be something we can do about it. What I want to see is the community get together over there now and go through those things that can make a difference. I’ve spoken to the member for Mayo about this, and I will give any assistance I can to her. It’s obviously not my electorate, and so it’s not my place to go rummaging around all over the place, but whatever I can do through my farming contacts to try and bring that community together to have that kind of conversation I will do. At least at the end of this terrible fire season, with the loss of life—and my heart goes out to all of those—we can take some positive land management steps forward. We can say: ‘Well, it doesn’t have to be like this. We can actually alter the way we live within our environment to make sure we can protect our people, property, family and friends.’ Thank you.