ADJOURNMENT;Tasmanian Bushfires – 26 Feb 2013

Tonight I want to speak about the recent devastating bushfires that hit Tasmania, and southern Tasmania in particular, which is where I have spent the most time recently. There was a fire on the Tasman Peninsula which destroyed 203 dwellings and 212 other structures. It left 100 businesses directly impacted and 150 indirectly impacted. Overall it burnt out a combined area of over 40,000 hectares which were devastated. The fire on the Tasman Peninsula was in the areas around Dunalley, Murdunna, the Arthur Highway, Boomer Bay and Connelly’s Marsh, and Dunalley Primary School was also destroyed. It not only left many people’s houses destroyed but also left 1,000 residents stranded.

This fire was followed shortly after by a fire south of Bicheno on the east coast which forced some residents to shelter in the Bicheno Community Hall. The bushfire season has continued throughout February with fires at Molesworth and Gretna. Some fires are still burning but, I understand, as of today they are under control, so that is some good news. While the Molesworth fire burnt 19,000 hectares and distributed a pall of smoke over Hobart for several days, it is a miracle that no houses were destroyed there.

I live some 15 to 20 minutes drive south of Hobart, which is at least 45 to 55 minutes drive south of the area, and ash was over my outdoor setting. There was a lot of ash and smoke in the air for a number of days.

But tonight I want to put on record my thanks to some of the very many volunteers in a range of areas who came to people’s assistance and who still continue to support the people of Tasmania who have suffered in whatever way from these bushfires. It is a great credit to our emergency service agencies—Tasmania Police, the SES and the Tasmanian Fire Service—that despite the scale of the disaster not a single life has been lost as a direct result of the fires.

Regrettably, there was one indirect casualty. Peter Cramer, one of 65 Victorian firefighters who came to Tasmania to assist our fire services, suffered a fatal heart attack while walking through the bush to identify possible containment lines. I would like to pass on my condolences and also those of Senator Brown, who is in the chamber at the moment, to his family. It was great that firefighters throughout Australia and even from New Zealand could come to our aid.

While any death is tragic, it is a credit to firefighters such as Mr Cramer that the outcome was not much worse. The Australian and Tasmanian governments have been working hard together to provide support for people affected by these fires. Immediately after the disaster we enacted the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements. These included providing financial assistance to people affected through Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payments and deploying Centrelink staff to recovery centres to assist with the claims process.

The Tasmanian government has committed to rebuilding Dunalley Primary School and has acted quickly to establish a temporary school, made up of demountable classrooms, in time for students to commence school at the beginning of the first term. The news items around those young children at Dunalley Primary School were quite heart-warming for people to see. They were so keen and excited to have a school there. A great deal of credit should go to the Dunalley Primary School Association, particularly their chair, Elizabeth Knox, not only for working hard to secure the commitment to get the school up and running but for the well-organised appeal to secure the materials they need, such as books and stationery, to make sure the school is operating at full capacity, as it was from the beginning of this school year.

Tonight, as I said, I would like to pay tribute to some of the very many volunteers who have so generously given their time to the bushfire response and to the very many generous donors who have contributed to the relief effort.

Obviously, some of our most dedicated volunteers during a fire emergency are the volunteer firefighters. To give you a brief picture of how heavily the Tasmania Fire Service relies on its volunteer brigades, there are about 400 professional firefighters employed by the service and about 4,000 volunteers. During major incidents, volunteer firefighters spend hours away from their friends and family, often performing difficult and dangerous work. They do this in their own time and the only reward they receive for their efforts is the pleasure of having served the community.

Similar praise should also go to our volunteers from the State Emergency Service. Many volunteers were really integral to the relief effort, such as those who worked long shifts at the Hobart Showground. They packed and sorted donated goods for St Vincent de Paul to go to people in fire-affected areas.

As the Tasman Highway was closed for many days, volunteers were also relied on to ferry food and goods to stranded Tasman Peninsula residents by boat. Nothing could get through via the roads at all and so people with small craft were volunteering, taking food, basic necessities and goods across.

Dunalley Neighbourhood House worked hard to provide much-needed services to affected residents, such as hot showers and internet access. I would like to pay credit to the Coordinator of the Dunalley Neighbourhood House, Yve Earnshaw. They were able to respond really promptly to the needs of the community.

Regular meals were served to hundreds of residents sheltering at the Port Arthur Historic Site, thanks to the efforts of staff and volunteers. Organisations such as the RSPCA, the Dogs’ Homes of Tasmania and Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary provided food, shelter and other assistance to domestic animals and wildlife.

I am also aware of lawyers who have provided pro bono legal assistance to people affected by the fires. Scouts Tasmania collected, and is still collecting, fencing materials for the charity BlazeAid, which recruits volunteers to mend fences of fire-damaged rural properties.

I have spoken previously in this place about the generous volunteers I have met from Rotary and Timber Communities Australia. Some of them previously travelled to Victoria to rebuild fences following the 2009 fires, and some of those volunteers will be travelling to Tasmania to repay that favour.

One volunteer I would particularly like to recognise is Melanie Irons, who set up and maintained the Facebook page ‘Tassie Fires—We Can Help’ as a central information repository for people offering or seeking assistance. The page now has over 20,000 followers.

Of course, the bushfire relief effort would not exist without a generous financial contribution from the community. Red Cross, the Salvos, Rotary and Lions have all established bushfire appeal funds. A separate fund has been established by the Tasmanian Department of Education for donations to Dunalley Primary School. As a Rotarian, I am pleased to announce that Rotary International has raised $131,000 for the relief effort.

With the help of my parliamentary colleagues—and two of them are here at the moment—Senator Brown and Senator Thorp, along with the member for Franklin, Julie Collins, I was really pleased to assist the Snug District Disaster Appeal Committee. This committee held a community event to raise funds for the Tasmanian Bushfire Appeal. The small town of Snug is very dear to me. I grew up in the little town next door to Snug and, in the 1967 bushfires, both Margate—where I was born and bred and where I spent the early years of my life—and Snug were just about decimated.

Coming out of this, the local Snug community set up a disaster appeal committee. They do not run all the time but they reinvigorate the committee whenever there is a disaster that they can help out with. That is the community’s way of helping pay back the rest of Tasmania for the effort that they put in way back in 1967. They had a gala day, with a cricket match, a silent auction, a raffle, a barbecue, some live music and various other activities including car boot sales and face painting. I had a great day. I was not going to stay for the whole day but I did and I had a great time. They raised over $7,000, which I think, for a small community, was a great effort.

Trivia nights also appear to be a popular way to raise funds, and I am going to run out of time to mention everything that has happened. There have been hundreds of fundraising appeals, but one special one was held just a couple of weeks ago and it was attended by celebrities such as MasterChef contestant Ben Milbourne, cricketer Ed Cowan and members of the Hawthorn Football Club. I would like to thank the organisers—Kirilly Crawford, Carla Johnson and Olivia Shekleton—for raising $11,000. All of that money has been donated to the Dunalley Primary School.