STATEMENTS ON INDULGENCE – Natural Disasters

The memories of the Dwellingup fires of 1961 in Western Australia send a shudder through anyone who remembers them. On January 6, a lightning strike in Dwellingup’s Lane Poole Reserve jarrah forest at the back of Waroona around 7.30 in the morning recreated that challenge. It was a fire that took 17 days to extinguish. It had a 243-kilometre perimeter and burnt over 72,000 hectares around Waroona, Yarloop, Preston Beach, Cookernup and Harvey. Of course, there were so many homes lost in Yarloop, as we have all seen. Over 172 properties in different ways were affected. We have seen bridges lost, power lost and at least 800 kilometres of fencing destroyed as well as cattle losses, pasture, hay, seed and all of that. It claimed the lives of Malcolm Taylor and Leslie ‘Squizzy’ Taylor in Yarloop. I offer my sincere condolences to their family, their friends and the Yarloop community who all feel their loss.

On January 6, I was home at our dairy farm in Harvey. We could see the fire coming—the massive pools of smoke—and were following the DFES alerts and warnings very closely. It was fuelled by very strong winds on Wednesday night—so strong that it woke us up throughout the night. On Thursday morning our paddocks and lawns were covered in ash and embers, and we could see the fires burning on several fronts. There were evacuations from each of the affected communities. On Thursday night we could see Yarloop actually burning— the glow in the sky was intense. We were keeping in close touch with people in the nearby Cookernup community. They could actually hear the gas bottles going off one after the other as Yarloop burned.

The fires then raced towards Preston Beach at a rate of knots, burning properties out to and across the Forrest Highway. The fires came—there was so much changing wind. It changed all the time, and you never knew where the fires were coming from. Properties that had been missed in the first pass of the fires were then collected as the fires came back when the winds changed. The fires actually came to within 1.6 kilometres of the Harvey town site itself.

At one stage, we had fires at our property in Harvey coming at us from three different fronts. Fortunately, they did not actually get to us. Water bombers were constantly flying over the house and, all through this, our firefighters were front and centre.

We had local volunteer fire brigades from Yarloop, Cookernup, Harvey, Uduc, Brunswick and right around the south-west and, of course, the Yarloop-Cookernup crews, fighting fires for others while their own homes were burning.

These men and women, many of whom have trained for years to protect the community, were absolutely devastated when they could not save their own Yarloop community. They were absolutely exhausted in their efforts to do so. In the local newspaper, one Harvey volunteer said that he was in Yarloop and that ‘when this inferno hit, it was like a wave of fire that just crashed through the school’ that they were trying to protect. He said, ‘Half the side of our fire engine just melted.’

The Yarloop fire brigade lost their actual fire station in that fire in Yarloop. They moved to the Cookernup fire station, and it became affectionately known as the ‘Cookerloop’ fire station. That is where I sat and met so many of the local Yarloop and Cookernup firefighters, and others from right around the region who were helping out with the fires. They had so much to deal with. I am just in awe of people who think of themselves as ordinary people but who do absolutely extraordinary things. And I met fireys from as far away as Rosa Brook, from Denmark in the south, from Cowaramup, from Margaret River, from Capel, and even those who came from New South Wales.

I personally owe a huge thanks, as does our community—all the communities—to the volunteer and the professional firefighters who worked so hard and put their own lives at risk to fight these fires. I thank the local farmers who were also helping each other whenever their properties were under threat—and that was constant. I want to thank the army of volunteers in the community who were doing everything they could to help, whether it was helping to move horses, donating feed and hay or collecting stray horses and animals; the local businesses and individuals who donated food for the fireys, and to people and pets in evacuation centres; and the Brunswick football club and its volunteers, who prepared 2,500 meals for the various fire and volunteer stations.

I want to commend the Harvey shire council, the shire president, Tanya Jackson, and CEO, Michael Parker, as well as the multitude of agencies and organisations who worked tirelessly at the evacuation centres—and now the recovery centres—providing information and support as well as necessities to people, and those who are providing ongoing physical and emotional support—both are greatly needed. I want to acknowledge the generosity of the Australian people and businesses in supporting the many fundraising efforts aimed at helping those affected by the fires including, of course, Andrew Forrest, who actually came to Harvey to hold a meeting with the community.

I want to acknowledge Channel 9 for their wonderful concert for the local fireys, and the artists who donated their time. Anybody who saw the coverage of that on television could not help but be touched by the stories of the local fire brigade and the local volunteers who were there, all talking about what they had seen and done. I hope that concert and the presentation wins an award in time. I want to acknowledge the volunteers on the ground now—those who are helping farmers clean kilometre after kilometre of burnt out wire and fencing. I want to acknowledge Rotary, which got together to fund ongoing counselling services—free of charge—for those who need it most. I want to acknowledge Lions clubs. I want to acknowledge those who are helping out with the fencing, and BlazeAid as well.

I want to talk about Harvey Primary School, which has incorporated the Yarloop Primary School within itself. They have created a place for all of those Yarloop Primary School students who are still in the area. So they have got their own little school; they will stay together as a community school within the Harvey Primary School. I congratulate everyone who has worked so hard to make that happen.

What I would say is that what we see in these times of great tragedy and trauma is the best in us: the best in us as Australian people; the best in us as communities; and the best in us for how we care for each other. Often the smallest things we do for each other in these times matter the most. But mostly—for anybody who is going to read this or is listening—I would say, please do not wait. Make your fire plan and write it down. Go to the DFES website—there is a book there; it is a fire management plan. Please write your own fire management plan —exactly what you are going to do. Write it down, because when you are in a crisis it can be very, very difficult to think clearly.

If you have your lists, if you know exactly what you need to take, how much food you need for each person and all the preparations you need to make, this will make the management of such a situation so much less traumatic and enable you and your families to be far safer. I encourage every person to do exactly that: to actually have your own fire management plan. Every time we have a tragedy such as what happened in Yarloop and around the Harvey Shire in Waroona, we always learn something from it, but one of the most important things is that we learn to have our own fire management plan.