Community facilities | February 06, 2019

Commemorations - 2009 Victorian bushfires

Victorian Parliament -  6 February 2019 -  Ms KEALY (Lowan) (16:36:13): Tomorrow marks the 10th anniversary of Black Saturday and the 2009 Victorian bushfires, a tragic event which resulted in Australia’s highest ever loss of life from a bushfire and the further loss of many homes, schools, businesses, community meeting places, land, beloved pets, stock, forests and wildlife. At the outset I would like to extend my sincere condolences to the families, friends and loved ones of all those lost in the 2009 Victorian bushfires. I would also like to offer my thoughts and support to all those who were impacted by the fires in others ways, whether that be through loss of property, those still healing the physical or mental trauma of the day, those who helped to battle the fires or helped a community through their rehabilitation and healing over the past 10 years and those who are still affected by just watching the impact of the fires and feeling the hurt of these communities. My thoughts are with you all. Like many I can vividly recall the lead-up to Black Saturday. The country was dry, very, very dry. After an extended period of drought the environment was tinder dry. The state was already on high alert for fire danger, which escalated in the week leading up to Black Saturday, with the dangerous mix of high winds and extremely high temperatures predicted for the Saturday. On the Saturday morning the air was hot and thick. Stepping outside felt like stepping into an oven. It was also extremely windy with high wind gusts. We actually experienced wind gusts of up to 90 kilometres per hour in the west of the state, and, as many people in country Victoria would have expressed that day, it was a terrible day for a fire to break out. Today, 10 years on, it feels like this was a gross underestimate of just how terrible the fire conditions were. No-one could ever have expected the tragic conclusion and the bushfire tragedy that would unfold later that day, taking the lives of 173 Victorians just on Black Saturday and more in the days following. On Black Saturday two significant fires broke out in the Lowan electorate: the Remlaw fire near Horsham and the Coleraine fire. The Horsham fire burnt just under 6000 hectares of land. It took the beloved Horsham Golf Club and 11 homes around the Haven region and also west of Horsham around Vectis. The fire was first known about and ignited about 12.30 p.m. on the Saturday when strong winds initiated the failure of a 40-year-old tie wire, which felled a powerline at Remlaw, just west of Horsham. The fire spread south-west and then south-east, across the Wimmera Highway and Wimmera River to the Horsham Golf Course and then to Haven, south of Horsham. Firefighters managed to save the general store, the town hall and the school at Haven, though flames came within metres of those buildings. Winds of up to 90 kilometres per hour changed direction three times throughout the day, producing conditions described by the local CFA incident controller as the worst he had ever seen. It is actually amazing to have a look at the fire map around Horsham. It was due to the incredible work of CFA volunteers but also an ounce of luck that the wind conditions changed in such a way that the township of Horsham was protected and saved. t would have been an enormous tragedy had the wind conditions not changed and if those CFA volunteers had not been able to put out some of those spot fires that were heading towards the city. Over the weekend it was a great privilege to join the Haven community in their commemorative events marking the 10th anniversary of the Remlaw fire. It was amazing to join that community—it is a very tight-knit community—hear their stories and see firsthand how they were hit by the fire initially and how they were impacted by the fire, but also how they have worked towards recovery over the past 10 years and how they are still recovering in many ways. During a bus tour of the fire-impacted area I was fortunate to be seated next to Jamie Chandler. Jamie is a CFA volunteer with the Wonwondah brigade. I believe he was captain at the time of the fire and he led a lot of the coordination of the Horsham fires on the ground. He was one of the first on the fireground on the day. It was the first time that Jamie had been up some of the roads we were travelling on, and to hear him relay firsthand what the conditions were like on the day and how the fire was breaking out and spotting so rapidly really helped me to envisage what the conditions were like. He said it was the dust that was more of an issue than the smoke, which you usually see in a fire, because it was so incredibly windy through that region. He recalled driving the fire truck to a residence and pulling up the fire truck with only centimetres to go before he would have run into a flying fox wire that would have ripped the top off the fire truck. He then travelled further through the same property and nearly drove the truck into an in-ground trampoline, which of course would have resulted in a sure loss of life for those people involved. Unfortunately I think a Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning truck actually put a tyre into that in-ground trampoline. They were able to escape, though, and to attack the fire in other areas. But it did make me realise just the terror, the difficulty and the positions our volunteers put themselves in, all in the name of protecting their fellow community members and also property. Jamie also recalled driving past Horsham Golf Club and seeing the pine trees ablaze and golfers scrambling off the course and huddling in bunkers. He said it was like watching Jurassic Park. It would have been absolutely terrifying for people in that environment, but also of course for all of the people who were impacted by fires on that day. He drove away and could see the golf club was well aflame and could not be saved. He knew that there was an elderly resident in the Haven area, which the fires were heading towards; it was a resident who was in a wheelchair. As he drove up to this house he could see the back of the house was already alight and he knew that it was too late to try and save the house. They did put an effort in, but they knew they had to move on to another building—it was just too far gone. They did not know it at the time, but fortunately that resident was evacuated, although the house was completely razed. There is a lovely story where they did find in the dust and the ashes after the fire an old tobacco tin that had some lovely photos in it, which were able to be saved and are a very important keepsake for the family members of that resident. The immense number of people that supported the firefighter efforts in that area was just amazing. I think that by 3 o’clock more than 400 personnel were engaged to fight these fires. I do thank everybody who was involved because, incredibly, we had no loss of life in the Horsham fires and there were no injuries, which is just phenomenal, really. We also had a major fire at Coleraine. Again, in the gusting winds we had a powerline blow down. This was another significant fire, and while it did not take as much property, as many fence lines or as many homes—I believe just the one home was lost—it took the Coleraine Avenue of Honour and also, unfortunately, we had one significant injury in the firefighting exercises. A local man was trying to evacuate some stock out of harm’s way and while he was moving the stock the fire came up behind him and he suffered significant burns to the back of his body. Again, though, we are so fortunate that we did not have any loss of life in that area. Again the volunteers were able to hold up the fire and to protect our people and our property, which is what our CFA does so incredibly well. I would like to thank each and every CFA volunteer and all other volunteers and emergency services workers who assisted in the 2009 Victorian bushfires, whether it was fighting the fires on that day of Black Saturday or the mop-up and the clean-up that went on for the following weeks. I really do commend their courage and bravery. They most definitely saved us from a far greater tragedy for our region and our state, and for that I and all Victorians will forever be thankful. I would also like to thank the significant number of support workers and particularly the mental health workers and counsellors who provided that initial support but also supported people during the past 10 years and on an ongoing basis in some instances. We are dealing with these disasters in a much more effective way now and providing the mental health support that people need at the time of an incident to avoid significant mental injury, but we also know that we are better at encouraging people to engage in supports throughout the journey. If there are people who are feeling the impacts of remembering what happened on Black Saturday—whether they engaged with it, whether it is somebody who is a support worker or not—I do encourage them to look after their own physical and mental health and to reach out and try and get some supports sooner rather than later. People are there waiting for you, and it will assist you. To those who have bravely and generously shared their stories and experiences over the past week, and I know that is continuing through tomorrow, the anniversary, and over the coming days—this weekend on Saturday in particular, which I understand is quite a significant day for many—I really do thank them. It is incredibly brave of people to come forward and relive those experiences in a public way. We can all learn from that and understand how to deal with that situation—how disasters impact on each of us and our communities and how we can deal with these situations better into the future—so I thank them very much. Black Saturday was a day that was filled with fear, terror and loss. Ten years on we remember the tragic loss of human life and those who are still healing from physical and mental trauma, but we also reflect on the community strength and spirit and the resilience of communities hit by bushfire, and particularly their stories of hope, regeneration and renewal. I commend the motion to the house.

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