SPEAKING ON A BILL | 2009 VICTORIAN BUSHFIRES
Mr Melhem (Western Metropolitan) – I also rise to speak on the tragic loss of lives on Black Saturday, which was one of the worst bushfire events in our nation’s history. One hundred and seventy‑three people lost their lives, seven others later succumbed to their injuries and two firefighters who came to assist lost their lives as well. About 414 non-fatal injuries were sustained, and I cannot even imagine or count the number of psychological injuries still suffered by many Victorians in these areas. My thoughts are with the families and loved ones of those who lost their lives and those who survived the horrible events of that day. As I said, the impact of those fires is still felt today. I know many of the people who actually live in the devastated region, in the Kinglake region. Our family has a farm in Glenburn. We were one of the lucky ones. The fire decided not to cross the road. But other people were not that lucky, and I will come back to that in a second. I just want to take the opportunity to thank all the CFA, both volunteers—the many thousands of them—and career firefighters. They are angels. They are heroes. They are the ones who are there to defend our country. We have got two armed forces of this country: the ones who actually carry weapons to defend us from external threats, and these heroes, firefighters, both volunteers and career firefighters, who defend us when nature turns against us. I want to pay tribute to them and appreciate their effort. There is a smaller group: firefighters who call themselves forest firefighters, who are employed by what was the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE). I had the honour to represent them for many, many years. They are the ones who wear the green overalls. They are the ones who get in helicopters and jump behind enemy lines, if you wish to say it that way. They come in to put these fires out or they start little fires to redirect the main fire from residential areas. Basically the only tool they have is their backpack, and that is it. They are left alone. To me they are the special forces, and we do not talk too much about them. They are my heroes. I have had the honour of knowing a lot of them over the years. Particularly I just want to talk about two DSE firefighters who lost their lives in February 2013. They are Steven Kadar, 34 years old, and Katie Peters, 19 years of age. Both of them lost their lives in 2013, and the worst part was when I attended their funerals and talked to their parents. Since then there has been a coronial inquiry to inquire into their deaths. They learned from what happened on that day. Similarly, we tried to learn from the bushfires of Black Saturday with the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, which happened after that. We definitely had a lot of lessons out of that, and maybe that is why we are better off—better equipped to fight or face these events. If I go back to what happened on that day, my family was supposed to go up to the farm in Glenburn on that day, but as we were driving we decided to actually divert and go to Parkdale instead to a birthday party, which we were not going to initially. During that night we were not celebrating or drinking. We were on the phone trying to find out whether our friends, our neighbours—the Joyces, the Fullertons—were still alive. A particular person comes to mind: Barbara Stevens from Kinglake, a 65-year-old who lost everything. Rumours started that night. No-one had heard from her and she was presumed dead. It goes through your mind when you cannot get through. We could get through to some people, but we could not get through to the others. We discovered the next day that she had survived, but just. As she was leaving, taking the car out of the shed, the shed collapsed and hit the bonnet, but she managed to pull out and then drive from Kinglake to the town, to the assembly point where the CFA station is—driving through logs, burnt cars and burnt bodies. It was horrific. Barbara—I see her every few weeks—still has not recovered 10 years on. I want to emphasise the tremendous support people like Barbara Stevens have received from their immediate friends and families and the wider community. That is what makes this country great. When a tragedy strikes we come together. It was not just financial support—the financial support was enormous; hundreds of millions of dollars were donated by Australians—but people coming in to help her to build her fences and rebuild the house and the shed. She has got two big sheds now. People even donated cars because she lost all her cars. I am using this as an example, and I am proud I am an Australian. I think we should all be proud. That is what got these people through. We heard the stories during the commemoration on Monday, and we heard the stories from the survivors. Basically they were paying tribute to fellow Australians who came in and helped them. I will never forget that. It will always be at the back of my mind that when Jane and I decided to drive up first thing on the Sunday morning to check on our animals and our neighbours, we could not get through. We tried to get in from various directions. That was when I discovered that my wife could act. She broke down and made all sorts of threats to the police saying, ‘You’ve got to let us through’, and they let us through. They were a bit hesitant, and I understand why. Ms Lovell talked about driving, and I think her moon description was spot on, because there was just white ash. As we were driving through Dixons Creek and going up the mountain through Yarra Glen to Glenburn, everything was just white. We saw dead animals on the roads and on farms. To me personally it brought back some memories from the 1980s and in my previous life of going through a war. The devastation was very similar to a war zone. In fact I think it was much worse than a war, because there was no discrimination. I went to Marysville on the following Monday to meet with some of our members, and I will never forget the white house in the middle of the street. Everything was burnt on the left, the right, north and south, but that particular white house in the main street still stood. Even the paint on it was still white. When we got into Glenburn we found that one side of our road was basically all burnt. We were fortunate that only one structure was burnt, and that was the pub. There were a few stories about that and about it going up in flames at 3 o’clock in the morning. I think there were a few question marks about that, and the insurance took about two years to pay. The story was that it had been done deliberately, but that is another story. The fire decided not to cross the road to our property. The dry grass that had been golden the week before was black from all the embers. The embers flew up, because there was a very fierce wind, and hit the dry ground, but for some reason the fire did not take off, even though the house and the shed were covered in black ash. We were some of the lucky ones. Unfortunately 180-odd people were not that lucky. It is important that we remember them and remember their sacrifice. I think their sacrifice has put us in a much better position today. We are much better equipped; we have learned a great deal from what happened on that day. We nearly had a similar day only last week or the week before, but we were lucky that nothing drastic happened. To those people I want to say, ‘You sacrificed your lives for us to learn from your experience’, and so many lives have been saved as a result. I will finish by saying that when I drive to our farm in Glenburn, every weekend since Black Saturday—10 years on—I have seen the transformation of the land. Every weekend there is always something different. There are little things coming through. We drive through Kinglake West, Kinglake and sometimes we go through Dixons Creek. There were no houses. There was devastation, and it was all black. Now you see houses, one after the other, being built. I think the population of Kinglake has doubled to what it was before Black Saturday. There are more houses in Kinglake, and similarly in Marysville and other places. That to me shows the resilience of our people. People are not going to give up. They are not going to let the fires win. They understand that we are living in a country where we are subject to a harsh environment, to fires and floods. These are the people who did not give up. Many of them did, but most did not. Barbara Stevens is back living on her farm with her horses, and she is grateful for all the support. I appreciate that the Parliament is acknowledging what happened on that day. I think all here will never forget the 200 people who lost their lives and all the volunteers who saved a lot of lives and defended us. With those words, I commend the motion to the house.