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Bushfires Condolence Motion

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Cate Faehrmann
NSW Greens MP
25 February 2020

Ms CATE FAEHRMANN (20:25:43): he last time we were here, before Parliament rose at the end of the year, none of us would have imagined that the fire could be so horrific. These fires defied all predictions, coming earlier, fiercer, longer and more unpredictably than any other.

These fires killed 25 people, including three RFS volunteers: Geoffrey Keaton, Andrew O'Dwyer and Samuel McPaul. Captain Ian McBeth, First Officer Paul Hudson and Flight Engineer Rick DeMorgan Jr of Coulson Aviation from the USA also lost their lives. My deepest sympathy goes to all the families and loved ones of those who lost their lives in these fires, including those who fought heroically to save the lives and homes of others.

My deepest gratitude and respect go to the thousands of volunteers, paid firefighters and other workers, people who work for the Rural Fire Service, the SES, the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, Forestry Corporation of NSW, local council workers and the many countless volunteers who worked so tirelessly to offer care and support to the community during this terrible catastrophe. As many members have already stated, without their work many more people would have lost their lives. The tragic deaths during this fire season started with the small community of 100 people at Wytaliba, near Glen Innes. Last year two people died as a result of that terrible fire and others were hospitalised with serious injuries. George Nole was found dead in his car, trying to escape the fire. Vivian Chaplain fought to protect her home and animals she dearly loved. She was found alive but died several days later from terrible burns.

The mayor of Glen Innes Severn Council, Carol Sparks, lost her home of 40 years in the blaze at Wytaliba. She became a champion for her small community and a voice of compassion and reason from the front line. She urged politicians to act on climate change, as did the Shoalhaven City Council Mayor, Councillor Amanda Findley, and many other local council workers and community leaders on the front line. Days after the fire, Mayor Carol Sparks wrote an opinion piece that was published inThe Guardian. She said:

While all this is a personal tragedy for my family and myself, it is but one story within an unfolding statewide and global disaster, about which our community deserves nothing less than the honest and unvarnished truth.

There are already those who, following such statements, will aim to shoot the messenger. To those people I say this: take your best shot, for I have already been through hell and there is nothing you can say or do that can touch me now.

But for the sake of the future, for the sake of our community and the rising generation who will inherit this scorched Earth, one can only hope there will be enough people remaining who retain the common decency to listen, to heed the cries of those in harm's way, who will now together take decisive and collective action to save our ecosystem and our civilisation from collapse.

Carol Sparks lost her home of 40 years and some of her neighbours and dearest friends died. I believe that her great-grandson is recovering in hospital from severe burns. It is important to put Ms Spark's words on the record, as well as the words of other local RFS volunteers and residents fighting these fires. Former Blue Mountains RFS captain Douglas Wood from Bora Ridge, south-west of Lismore, spoke about the fires that bore down on his property and local community in early November. The 54-year-old managed to save his neighbour's property and his mum and dad's house next door, but as he did he watched his own home go up in flames. He told reporters:

We just did our best. I just can't explain how bad it was.

It was just so intense. It was unbelievable.

I have seen plenty of fires, and this is the worst I have seen in my life.

In another The Guardian opinion piece Badja Sparks said:

I have been a member of the Wytaliba community near Glen Innes for 40 years.

We lost two of our community members in last Friday's bushfires, and the father of my great-grandson is in Royal North Shore hospital being treated for severe burns while trying to save his house and his dead neighbour.

Nearly 50% of our able adults are members of the Wytaliba RFS, a figure envied by many other brigades. Over those 40 years on our 1,400-ha property, we have had more than a dozen out-of-control bushfires that were successfully controlled, most of them in recent years.

Over the past three years, in cooperation with NSW forestry, national parks and the RFS, we have had very extensive controlled burning in the state forest and national park on our perimeter.

On 14 September, after an outbreak of fires across the northern tablelands, high winds caused embers to spot more than 10km on to the centre of Wytaliba.

After an initial emergency the fire weather abated, but over the next week the fire spread across much of the property.

In a large operation more than 20 RFS trucks, more than 100 firefighters, bulldozers and waterbombers were successfully deployed to help defend our homes. All were saved. Much of Wytaliba was blacked out.

Carol – the mayor of Glen Innes with a 20-year RFS service medal – and I have a large cleared area around our double-brick house.

The September fire burned to our perimeter. This was just two months ago. Everything that should be done was done, and lots more.

The fire that came last Friday was of another order of magnitude altogether. A crown fire roaring in from the west on a hot afternoon with an 80km/h wind – it wasn't on the ground. It was a firestorm in the air – raining fire.

There was no fuel on the ground; it was already burned.

The fires destroyed 2,439 homes, burnt 5.5 million hectares, which is 37 per cent, of our national park estate, killed hundreds of millions of animals—potentially one billion—and impacted countless local businesses, causing some to close entirely. As all members have touched on, the scale of what we have lost for the wildlife and biodiversity of New South Wales is utterly incomprehensible. The National Parks and Wildlife Service initial analysis shows that about one quarter of all modelled koala habitat in eastern New South Wales has been impacted by the fires. As the Hon. Penny Sharpe mentioned earlier, the koala inquiry that I chair and that other members of this place are part of has heard devastating evidence from the experts that up to 80, 85 or 90 per cent of local koala populations have been wiped out. The National Parks and Wildlife Service analysis also shows that 30 per cent of bushland where 32 threatened animal species have previously been sighted and 5 per cent of bushland where 114 threatened animal species have habitat have been impacted by the fires.

The long-footed potoroo, a threatened species, is likely to be badly impacted. Today I read that 97 per cent of the habitat of the long-footed potoroo has been impacted. For all intents and purposes the long-footed potoroo may have become extinct in the fires. The brush-tailed rock-wallaby—which everyone loves—is likely to be badly affected as more than 80 per cent of its habitat has been impacted by fires. When a species is threatened we worry about a 5 or 10 per cent loss; a 80 or 90 per cent loss is extremely dire. They are absolutely staring extinction in the face. I touch on the pain, suffering and sheer terror that hundreds of millions of our wildlife have experienced. It has deeply affected all members, Australians and people around the world. I genuinely believe that it has affected people from all sides of politics. It is not a Greens issue or an Animal Justice Party thing; it has deeply impacted every member in this place. It has also highlighted the fact that the ongoing existence of our native wildlife has probably been taken for granted. For example, learning that the platypus may become extinct—even though six months ago that was not even a consideration—has touched a lot of people in a very big way.

I sincerely thank the many incredible wildlife carers and all the people from all walks of life who reached out when they realised that so many of our native wildlife were in pain and suffering and needed care. Workshops on building nesting boxes and making watering stations were booked out in a matter of minutes and many volunteered to go out to various firegrounds to drop food when it was safe to do so. That was incredibly heartening. Tonight many people in this place have spoken about the community spirit of people all working together, and I add my thanks to those comments. But I also put on the record how many people reached out to volunteer for our wildlife. It was a surprise to me how much of the world poured out their hearts to Australia because of the extent of these fire, the deaths, the horrifying images and our unique biodiversity and wildlife. And if it was a surprise to me I am sure it was a surprise to many other members.

I note the many distressing things that people witnessed and saw along the South Coast. We saw Armageddon pictures of people being saved from burning buildings and others on the beach with face masks and everything else, trying to rescue children. Members of this place and the other place have spoken about those events. But I also note—because quite a few people were talking about this at the time—that residents of the South Coast spoke of their distress when they saw the impact that the fires, smoke and heat were having on bird life.The Age photographer Justin McManus and Mallacoota local Rachel Mounsey documented some of the birds that perished in the Gippsland fires. These events were witnessed in the South Coast as well. The birds' remains washed up on Tip Beach, just outside Mallacoota. Justin McManus wrote:

Among the ash, hard to see at first, was the familiar bright plumage of some of our most iconic birds. The vivid blues, yellows, reds and greens of Rainbow Lorikeets, Crimson Rosellas, Yellow Tailed Black Cockatoos, Whipbirds, Honeyeaters and Robins. The closer we looked the more we began to comprehend the extent of the carnage, it was overwhelming and deeply sad. The ash entombing this avian graveyard stretched out along the beach as far as the eye could see.

I also acknowledge the distress of farmers and landholders, who have had to deal with going back to their properties and witnessing dead and horribly injured stock. I have seen images, but I have not had to experience that at a personal level. The thought of it just horrifies me: the stress that these people, who I know love their animals, would have felt. I have heard some of their stories and their interviews. The trauma cannot be underestimated: the trauma of wildlife carers—I have spoken with many—having to euthanise incredibly injured, distressed and suffering animals; the trauma that farmers and landholders—entire farming families—have experienced, having to go back to their property; the trauma that entire communities are feeling, having to hear all of these stories and hear people's grief; and the trauma to our national psyche from what has happened to communities, our wildlife and our natural heritage.

I acknowledge the Hon. Don Harwin's contribution about the bushfires' impact on Aboriginal heritage. There has been so much loss of some of the most incredible Aboriginal cultural sites, such as scar trees—again, something that communities are experiencing. I do not think that we really have any idea of how much has been lost. Lives are so important and we grieve for the loved ones and families of the people who have died, but as a nation we are grieving for so much more than that after these fires.

The Hon. Penny Sharpe told the story of Two Thumbs Wildlife Trust. I had spoken with the owner of that koala sanctuary a number of times before the terrible fires that destroyed his property and heard what he was coping with. In the second week of January, I visited a number of wildlife carers down the South Coast, around Cooma. I heard of wildlife carers trying to save all of the koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, goannas and possums that had been taken in from one fire zone. They had to rescue them from a particular wildlife carer's place and take them to another one. There was a bizarre and very distressing situation in which the wildlife carers had nowhere safe to take these animals.

James Fitzgerald from Two Thumbs Wildlife Trust told me about the situation with his koalas. He was scared of the fire that was going to rip through part of his sanctuary, which had a lot of koalas and joeys, that he had managed to protect up until that point. The Australian National University was studying this particular breed of koalas because they were the only koalas, as I understand it, in the whole country that had started to eat bark as well as leaves. On 23 January the air tanker went down with the loss of all on board: Captain Ian McBeth, First Officer Paul Hudson and Flight Engineer Rick DeMorgan Jr of Coulson Aviation. They died protecting that koala sanctuary, which is in the Peakview district near Jerangle. Everything was destroyed in that blaze.

The only reason that James Fitzgerald was not there at the time is that he had rushed one of his beloved koalas to the vet. He lost everything. I think it is very hard for James to deal with the pain that he feels for the koalas he lost, his life's work, but also potentially the guilt—not that he should have guilt—that those three brave firefighters died while they were saving his property. My heart goes out to James Fitzgerald. I hope he can get back on his feet soon and continue doing the work that he loves so much.

People know that this fire season was different. Worse, I think that when they talk about the fire season they are scared about how much more of this type of fire season there is to come. It seemed that over the summer everyone was talking about climate change, including the victims of bushfires, people who had lost their homes. On 10 January the president of the Australian Academy of Sciences, Professor John Shine, AC, issued a statement confirming that this season's bushfires were unprecedented anywhere in the world. It stated:

As an independent and authoritative scientific adviser to the parliament and to the nation, the Academy draws on the scientific expertise of Australia's leading scientists—the Fellows of the Academy.

The scientific evidence base shows that as the world warms due to human induced climate change, we experience an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events.

As a nation, we must deal with extreme weather events more effectively than we currently do. As such events become more frequent and severe, we must adapt Australia and Australians accordingly, as well as strengthen mitigation efforts.

Bushfires, along with other weather and climate challenges, pose complex and wide-ranging problems. Population growth, climate change, temperature extremes, droughts, storms, wind and floods are intersecting in ways that are difficult to untangle and address.

The Academy is resolute that the response to the bushfires must extend beyond the immediate and essential need to rebuild and recover.

Everything, including urban planning; building standards; habitat restoration; biodiversity and species preservation; and land, water and wildlife management will need careful and measured consideration.

We must further improve our ability to forecast changing environmental threats and continually improve climate modelling predictions. We must improve our understanding of fire behaviour and other adverse weather events, and we must continually develop new technologies, practices and behaviours to assist our nation to respond and adapt to, manage, and mitigate against such extreme events.

All the while, Australia must take stronger action as its part of the worldwide commitment to limit global warming to 1.5°C above the long-term average to reduce the worst impacts of climate change.

It was the academy that estimated that one billion animals have died this bushfire season. That estimate does not include birds, bats, fish, frogs and insects. One of the first areas in which fires started burning this season was around Dorrigo on the northern tablelands. The beautiful Mount Hyland Nature Reserve, part of the ancient Gondwana rainforest system, had never evolved to burn—but it burned. It burned right through. While many of the stories told about these fires have focused on the courageous efforts by countless volunteers to protect lives and property—and rightly so—many people also worked days and weeks on end to protect nature, to protect irreplaceable ecosystems such as rainforests and old-growth forests. I heard stories of volunteers working to protect tracts of old-growth forest, to protect ancient trees, because they knew how irreplaceable that area was and how vital those forests were to the threatened species that called those places home. Former Fire and Rescue NSW Commissioner Greg Mullins wrote an opinion piece for The Sydney Morning Herald on 10 September last year. He has written and spoken a lot since then. In the article he stated:

The number of days of Very High fire danger and above are also increasing. This is a clear long-term trend, driven by the warming and drying effects of climate change. It is not conjecture, but established fact, verified by the CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology, and the Bushfire/Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre.

With climate change we know that the fire seasons are starting earlier and finishing later. The cumulative fire danger during a fire season is higher. We know that means that we will get more of the types of weather events that we have seen over the last few months. The fires have stopped for now, but the planet has not stopped heating. We will continue to experience more frequent, dangerous and extreme weather events. People have talked about how their summer will never be the same.

Most people I know were affected by the fires. Many were on the South Coast. I know people who have properties that were burnt. Most of them are afraid of what next summer will bring. It is as if our whole notion of relaxing in summer and having beautiful summer holidays will never be the same. There has been some rain and people are talking about how some areas that were impacted just a couple of months ago have become green, but the rest of the State is in drought. Climate change has not gone away and many people who have been impacted are urging political leaders to take action. What communities saw and experienced over the summer has really scared them. They glimpsed a very frightening future that terrified them and they realised that was not an isolated case. Over the summer they urged political leaders—and they continue to urge us—to do everything within our power to change that.

One thing the fires did was turn the world's eyes upon us to see how we act on climate change. This is a bushfire condolence motion but I know that many victims and people impacted by those bushfires will urge political leaders and decision-makers in this place to finally act on climate change. I commend the motion to the House and I look forward to working with members in this place to hopefully deliver a future that generations to come will have some confidence in.

 

 

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Cate Faehrmann
NSW Greens MP
25 February 2020
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