February 24, 2014
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland—Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence) (17:41): I appreciate the opportunity to join the debate this evening to provide an update to the House in relation to the bushfires which have impacted the Gippsland region over the past couple of weeks. There is a bitter irony in the fact that just as we were commemorating and recognising the fifth anniversary of the Black Saturday bushfires on 7 February where, tragically, 173 people died in Victoria, the weather combined with some existing fires across the state of Victoria on 8 and 9 February to provide quite horrendous conditions. We were exposed again to another devastating series of fires across Victoria, particularly in the Gippsland region. On 9 February the extreme weather contributed to four large fires across the Gippsland electorate.
There were fires in the eastern part which continued to develop on that particular day. One was around Latrobe Valley in Morwell-Driffield area. One fire was around the South Gippsland region through Jack River near Yarram. Another was through the rural area surrounding Bairnsdale, around Glenaladale and what we call the Fingerboards area. The other one was at what we call the Goongerah complex, a massive fire in the order of 130,000 hectares north-west of Orbost in the Bonang and Bendoc area. For the sake of members, I will run through the responses to the fires by our volunteers, the professional firefighters and the agencies involved, and the local community. I will give an update on things now in the Gippsland region.
The South Gippsland fire near Jack River threatened the townships of Yarram and Devon North and burnt through in the order of 5,000 hectares of mainly agricultural land but also through pine plantations and quite difficult terrain. There were significant losses of equipment through the HVP plantations, loss of assets in the pine plantations themselves and there were agricultural losses. In many ways I think we were quite fortunate with that fire. If the northerly winds had continued for much longer and pushed the fire down towards the south before that southerly change came, the township of Yarram would have been threatened. So in some ways we dodged a bullet in the region that day through Yarram and Devon North.
Another fire which has been extinguished and contained was in the Glenaladale area, which is at the back of Lindenow in the foothills. There had been a fire burning a couple of weeks earlier, but on that day of extreme conditions the fire flared up again. Despite the efforts of departmental personnel and CFA volunteers, that fire got up and running on 9 February when we lost homes and a lot of outbuildings. Stock losses were also quite significant. I do not have the final tally with me; it is still being accounted for. There have been significant stock losses and a large amount of fencing has been lost from what was a very fast moving fire. The hot northerlies pushed the fire from the foothills down into the farming areas.
It is not all bad news. I had the opportunity to fly over the fire front a couple of days afterwards and it was obvious from the air that many people in that region had been very well prepared. They had their fire plans, they implemented them and that saved their properties. Though we did lose homes, there were some remarkable saves on that day. I pay credit to the agencies involved right across the Gippsland in working with the local community, spreading the message, informing them and preparing for the inevitability of fire during the dry and hot summer that we have just experienced.
My good friend Ewan Waller, the former Chief Fire Officer of Victoria, is one of those who saved his home. I know Ewan has been very busy within the community in these last 10 days helping with the recovery effort. In company with Ewan, I had the opportunity just last week to meet a family who, unfortunately, did lose their entire home. They lost property and suffered significant stock loss—in this case, they lost their entire goat herd. I saw their resilience and determination to rebuild and get on with their lives. Admittedly, right now it is a very difficult for them to figure out which job to start with, but they are determined to rebuild and get on with their lives. It was a great opportunity for me to meet with local residents and get a better understanding of how the fire has impacted on them.
The Goongerah complex fires are still causing major concerns in the east of the state. The fire started from lightning strikes. At various times over the last few weeks, it has threatened townships such as Bonang, Deddick, Goongerah and Bendoc, and also Buchan and Orbost at one stage. I visited the incident control centre on the eve of the day the fire really got going again. There were 500 personnel on the ground over that weekend, with people from right across Victoria, New South Wales and the parks service as well as the volunteers and contractors. Private contractors are such an important part of the firefighting effort in our regional communities. It is one of the key reasons that I am such a strong supporter of the timber industry. The timber industry brings with it equipment, material and people who know the bush and can go in there and help save properties and lives in desperate circumstances. This is a vast fire. It is in the order of 130,000 hectares. It is primarily in a remote area, but there are homes and properties there, and there have been losses from this fire.
It is the biggest fire we have seen in Victoria for quite some time and it will require a substantial amount of rain to extinguish it completely. The people in that community have been on high alert now for three or four weeks and the stress on families is genuine. They do not know when the fire is going to emerge again from the bush. It will threaten their livelihood and it will threaten their homes.
As the local member and a resident of Gippsland, it has been very pleasing that we have not lost any lives in these fires. The tragedy of Black Saturday was the number of lives that were lost. We did learn some lessons from Black Saturday about the need to leave early if you are not properly prepared and to seek refuge rather than to put yourself into a situation where you might be exposed to an inferno of the magnitude we have seen develop in Gippsland over the last couple of weeks.
In providing this update to the House tonight, I would like to thank the volunteers and the staff of all the emergency services and the local community groups like the Red Cross, and other organisations like the VFF and those who have rallied to help people who have been affected by the bushfires. I would like to thank our local councillors and the staff for the work that they do in very difficult times and the police and emergency services personnel. Gippslanders are a resilient bunch, but their resilience has been tested many times in recent years. I am sure we will recover and I encourage people, as they continue to face the fire threat, to put the safety of their families first.
There is one fire that is still causing a great amount of concern in Gippsland and the Latrobe Valley—that is, the Morwell mine fire. Members here in Canberra or from Sydney may not have heard much about this fire. In Gippsland and the Latrobe Valley region this is a fire that is causing a great deal of angst. People are becoming angry and frustrated with the amount of smoke, which is particularly affecting the township of Morwell, where there are health concerns. On the weekend that fire started there was a fire already burning at Hernes Oak, which is to the west of Morwell near Moe. It burnt down the Princes Highway corridor and ended up threatening the outskirts of Morwell. No primary residences were lost but an amount of shedding and fencing was lost. At one stage that fire got into the Maryvale mill site and burnt into the woodchips and the log stack. That was a huge concern for our community. There are 1,000 jobs associated with the Maryvale mill. That mill was threatened during the night and I pay credit to the people on the ground who managed to put that fire out and save the mill, and in doing so they saved 1,000 jobs. It would be very difficult for anyone to rebuild the Maryvale mill had it been lost on that night. It caused significant disruption and the highway was closed. The fire crossed the highway and burnt towards Morwell.
At the same time another fire which we believe was deliberately lit started on the Strzelecki Highway and burnt towards the Morwell mine, where the Hazelwood power station is and spotted into the mine. It ignited a redundant area of the mine on the northern face and started a coal fire. Anyone who has had experience with coal fires understands that these are very difficult fires to fight. It is not like a grass fire or a bushfire where you can hit it hard and hope to put it out. A coal fire takes time and unfortunately the patience of my community has been well and truly tested over these past two weeks as that coal fire has continued to burn.
There are three key issues for the community at the moment in relation to the Morwell mine fire, as I see it. One is that we need to put the fire out as soon as we possibly can. It started outside the mine. It was deliberately lit. I do not blame the mine personnel at all. The fact that someone lit this fire grates with my entire community more than you can believe. Resources have to be applied to that fire and to make sure it is put out as soon as possible. The second is the need to protect the health of local residents, particularly the young, the elderly and the more vulnerable who have existing health concerns. It is important that we get those health messages out to our community as much as we possibly can. The third is that we have to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent a recurrence of a fire like this. There will be sources of ignition, whether a lightening strike, an accident or an arsonist, and we just need to minimise the damage or reduce the fuel load when that occurs.
In relation to the open-cut mines in the Latrobe Valley, we need to make sure that any of the disused sections of these mines are properly rehabilitated to minimise the likelihood of future fires in those parts of the mines. In the day-to-day operation of open-cut mines sprinklers prevent any outbreak where the working face is involved. However, in the disused sections of the mine we need to make sure we minimise the likelihood of future fires occurring. That means proper remediation and rehabilitation of the disused sections. I am not seeking to apportion blame in that regard, because we are talking about a section of the mine that has not been used for 30 years. It was decommissioned 30 years ago under the former SEC. The site has been there a long time and it has not been fully rehabilitated, but we need to make sure, having learnt a lesson from this event, that a fire of this magnitude does not occur again.
To appreciate the difficulties, the discomfort and the concerns of the people of Morwell, you need to visit the town when the fire is burning and the prevailing winds are blowing the smoke directly across the town. It is like sitting around a campfire for six or seven hours with the smoke never leaving you. Ash and smoke are descending on the town on a constant basis. The challenges for the community to manage that for an extended period are very real, and I empathise with people concerned about their personal health and the health and wellbeing of their families and friends.
For the sake of completeness, I provide an update on the operation to suppress the fire. The latest update is provided by GDF SUEZ Hazelwood and I have made it available on my Facebook site. It indicates that work is continuing 'around the clock with all the relevant authorities to combat the fire in the Morwell mine and reduce the level of smoke' and impact it is having on people in the valley. Crews from the CFA, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, along with mine personnel and contractors, are working there. The update says:
Over the past 72 hours crews have begun to gain the upper hand, with several milestones including significant blackening out of more than 300 metres of the Northern mine faces, more than 200 metres on the South-east faces …
The Northern mine face is creating the most angst for the people of Morwell, because the smoke and ash from it are descending on the town. Vehicles have arrived from Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory fire services. They are using compressed air foam systems to assist with fire suppression work. CFA strike teams have been in there, along with crane monitors and aerial fire suppression appliances involving long-line helicopters and sky-cranes. All have been instrumental in helping to progress the efforts to suppress this fire.
It is fair to say that a lot of resources—I understand, in the order of a couple of hundred people—have been applied to the fire. I am confident that the incident controllers are getting on top of the event and are reducing the impact on the local community. But I do sympathise and empathise with the local residents who feel as if they have been neglected. They believe the broader Australian community is not aware of the conditions they are enduring. I want to assure the residents of the Latrobe Valley-Morwell district that along with my state colleague, Russell North, who has been out and about almost every day working with the agencies and supporting his community, we have been regularly updating the upper echelons of both the state and the federal governments on the fire. We have made sure that the information provided to people regarding their health and fire suppression activities is distributed more widely.
It is fair to say that in the early days—the first four or five days after the fire started—there was not enough information given to the community. They did not know what was going on and the possible risks to their health. I am happy that in the past week various agencies, such as the Department of Health, the Department of Human Services and the EPA and CFA, have been getting information to the community and providing people with better updates highlighting steps that need to be taken by those with a pre-existing health concern or those worried about family members with respiratory conditions. This is a challenging time for the Morwell district community. No-one should be under any illusions about how difficult this firefight is. It is probably going to take another couple of weeks before it is completely under control and the smoke is reduced to the extent that people can go about their normal lives. In the meantime, I assure the people of the Morwell district and the broader Latrobe Valley that I am working with the state government and the federal government on steps we can take to alleviate their concerns.
I turn to my re-election as the member for Gippsland. In my maiden speech in 2008 I reflected on what a great honour and privilege it is to be elected to this place. It is hard to imagine that is almost six years ago. It has been quite a journey in partnership with my community. I vowed at that time that I would never take that honour for granted and I hope I have fulfilled my end of the contract with the voters of Gippsland. When you enter this place you have an unwritten contract with your constituents. To my mind the contract is always to put the needs of the people of Gippsland first. I have endeavoured to do that at every opportunity over the past six years. I will aim to work on several key projects during this next term in government, in partnership with state and local government authorities and the broader community. It will come as no surprise to anyone in my community that my key focus remains on job creation and helping young people in the Gippsland region to achieve their full potential.
To that end, I will be working towards delivering several key projects over the next few years. I do not guarantee every one of these projects will be delivered, but we are working on these projects as a community and I think they are very important for our region. One is the Latrobe Regional Hospital redevelopment, which is the most essential health service upgrade east of Melbourne. The plan is for a $65 million redevelopment of Latrobe Regional Hospital. The project is still awaiting funding. The previous federal government did not fund it, although I acknowledge it funded other regional hospital projects under the regional priority rounds. Unfortunately we did not secure funding for the LRH project even though it met all the criteria. I will still work with my state and federal colleagues on ways to fund the project in the future.
There is another project I am particularly passionate about in my new role as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence but also in my ongoing role as the member for Gippsland, and that relates to the East Sale RAAF base and further upgrades of that facility. It is a magnificent RAAF base with a long association with the Gippsland community. There is already some work going on at the moment in the form of a $180-million redevelopment, which I had the opportunity to show the Minister for Defence and the Chief of Air Force just last week when they visited the Sale region. There are opportunities for further growth of the East Sale RAAF base and the community is keen to pursue those. In particular, the community in the Wellington shire is supporting a bid to bring the AIR 5428 contract to East Sale in the future. That is a competitive tender process but I know that the Wellington Shire Council is particularly keen to see that succeed.
More generally in terms of road funding initiatives, I am supporting efforts to upgrade the Princes Highway, not only the Traralgon-Sale duplication but also through Roads to Recovery, through accident black spots, through the Bridges Renewal Program and by making sure that Gippsland receives its fair share of any finding that is available through both the state and federal governments.
In 2015 there will be investment in the Stronger Regions Fund delivered by The Nationals and the Liberals in government, which will see $200 million invested each year in local capital works projects. Again, I will be making sure that my community receives a fair share of that funding commitment.
Gippsland will always expect its local member to fight hard to secure its share of funding, whether it be for capital works or for other projects, but I still maintain that our greatest asset remains our people. I mentioned before how incredibly resilient they have been in the face of adversity in recent times, whether it is young or old, black or white, we do have a very resilient community who are prepared to work together and who are determined to get on with their lives and help each other through volunteering, whether it be through sporting or through our various community groups.
I thank the people of Gippsland for the confidence they have shown in me over the last three elections. I intend to repay that faith in my efforts as the member for Gippsland and also in my new role as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence. I would like to thank my family, friends, supporters and staff for their tireless efforts and their enduring patience. We ask a lot of our families in this place. I would like to wish all members a successful term in the 44th Parliament.