Standing up for Canberra

Natural Disasters

Every summer Australia is dogged by bushfires. We see it having a significant impact on communities. We see it stretch the resources of our emergency workers and firefighters. But this summer something that has really haunted me has been one of the bushfires—the one in Yarloop. I just cannot get out of my mind the thought of those two men—in their 70s—who perished in the fires. 

I understand that one required a hearing aid and had a tradition of going to bed early and his relatives suggested that he may have turned off the hearing aid—hence he would not have heard what was coming. So those two men in their 70s—I just cannot get out of my mind what they went through in their last moments. It really does haunt me.

As I understand, at least 143 properties were destroyed in that fire, including 128 houses in Yarloop. That included sheds, caravans and community buildings. Four firefighters were injured in that fire, and it has had a significant and devastating effect on that community. We heard from the Leader of the Opposition this week about 58 students from the local primary school who had to start their school year attending other schools, because their school had burnt down. So you can imagine: not only had they been through the trauma and the aftermath of the fire but here they were starting their school year separated around the region. My thoughts go to those students, their parents and the community.

Over the course of summer, we also saw the destruction along Victoria's Surf Coast in December—around Christmas Day and beyond—including the loss of 116 homes at Wye River. We also saw bushfires in Tasmania and South Australia that my colleagues have spoken about. I just want to take this opportunity to thank the firefighters, the emergency workers and the communities for their exceptional and courageous work over the course of these fires. As we know, many of these emergency workers and firefighters are volunteers. They give up their summer to help keep communities safe. So I just want to send a very big thank you to them for their extraordinary efforts.

Canberra has not been safe from bushfires. This year marks the 13th anniversary of the bushfires that ravaged Canberra in 2003 that left four people dead, 490 injured and 500 houses destroyed or severely damaged—and all of them in my electorate. They were houses in Duffy, Holder, Kambah, Rivett, Curtin, Torrens, Chapman and the settlement of Uriarra. Perhaps the most notable cultural and scientific loss caused by those fires was the damage to the scenic and renowned Mount Stromlo Observatory, which is the headquarters of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Australian National University. It is estimated to be the source of a third of Australia's astronomical research. At that time, five historically significant telescopes were destroyed. Instrumentation and engineering workshops, the observatory's library and the main administration buildings were also consumed. Bushfires severely harmed the vegetation of the Cotter River Catchment and caused water quality problems in the three dams in that catchment: the Cotter, the Bendora and the Corin.

I want to take this opportunity to remind Canberrans about the devastation of the bushfires. I want to take this opportunity to remember those who perished in the fires: Alison Tener, who was 38; Peter Brooke, who was 74; Douglas Fraser, who was 60; and Dorothy McGrath, who was 76 and who lived in the Mount Stromlo Forestry Settlement.

Despite the tragedy and devastation of those 2003 bushfires, the Canberra community rallied around the families and friends of those who had lost their lives or who had been injured or those who had lost their homes, because in Canberra it is half a degree of separation. We are a very close community and most of us knew at least one person or one family that had been affected by the fires. My friend former Chapman resident, now a Narrabundah resident, Jane Smyth, lost her home. At the 10th anniversary service at the memorial that is being built over the road from the suburb of Duffy, at the foot of Mount Stromlo, she said the trauma strengthened the Canberra community. I want to quote her here:

We'll always remember the great losses but we also remember that time of strength following the fires when the people of Canberra and district, friends, neighbours, strangers, reached out in new ways to each other and in our time of recovery, Canberra worked as a community.

I know communities go through a range of emotions following the loss and the trauma and the tragedy of bushfires. Ten years on from the Canberra bushfires, some Canberrans were still experiencing anger, and this is not surprising given the devastation. But, as the former ACT emergency services commissioner, Mark Crosweller, told 7:30 ACT on the 10th anniversary of the bushfires:

Simply to blame people in that circumstance … robs us of the opportunity to forgive and move on and we really need to do that. If people are still grieving 10 years later or if they're still angry 10 years later then we do have a problem in society.

As has been mentioned by the previous speaker, the really important thing here is to develop resilient communities. A few years ago, I met members of the community that had been devastated by the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria and, despite the massive losses, they were determined to face the future and rebuild their lives. There were determined, absolutely determined, to build a resilient community, and they had set up a number of mechanisms to do that. From the devastation and the tragedy and the loss that came from the bushfires, they were determined to create something good.

I think it is vitally important, at this point in time—where those communities are in mourning, are angry, are going through the grieving process—that we give them support. The former speaker mentioned that his community needs support in fencing. We also need support in infrastructure, in housing, in clothing, in food. We need to provide these communities with support in so many different ways, in the physical as well as in the emotional way. We particularly have to provide them with support for their mental health. We cannot forget that. It is vitally important that we ensure the tragedy, the trauma and the loss of bushfires unites our communities as it did here in Canberra. As I said, there were people there who were still experiencing anger 10 years afterwards; there were still people experiencing grief. But it is vitally important we remember that we need to unite as a community in this moment, in this time, of tragedy, loss, and trauma, rather than divide as a community

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