Condolence Motion – Australian bush fires

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Mr PITT: Lives have been lost across the country, as the previous speaker has said. Some 11 million hectares have been destroyed by fire. Individuals have lost businesses and livelihoods. They have lost all of their property, all of their holdings, many of their stock—many animals across the country have been affected or killed. There is no doubt that this has been a tragic and difficult fire season, and it is not finished yet.

I know my colleagues have been far more affected than my electorate. We have had some fires, one in particular at the little beachside community of Woodgate. There but for the grace of God—and the Rural Fire Service—go I. They have done a fantastic job right across this nation, and I can only thank them. What more can we do but put forward our words of thanks for the people who volunteer their time, put forward themselves for risk, and fight these fires which are very difficult to fight.

But what we must also look forward to are the challenges of making change. Because fundamentally—and this has been brought to my office now for many years—we must in this country allow landowners to manage their land, not continue to override their needs with bureaucracy. The idea in Queensland that you can only clear a firebreak from your property or structure, of just 20 metres, without a development approval—this is absolutely ridiculous. These are individuals who have their own staff, massive landholdings and heaps of equipment, and they have always managed their own land. This has been a complaint that I have continued to hear not only from them but from my colleagues in terribly affected areas.

The national broadcaster reported on 8 January 2020 that in Queensland, in terms of the fire hazard reduction program, in 2016 the state had planned 242 burns and completed 122. In 2017 they’d planned 225 burns and completed 131. In 2018, 177 were planned and 69 completed, and in 2019, 168 were planned and 117 burns were completed. Now, anyone who is involved with land management or fire knows that you cannot always get the perfect conditions on the day that you choose. The weather makes up its own mind. But what we have heard consistently over and over and over from our firefighters, from our volunteers and from our landowners is: give us back control of how we manage our land. I’ve got some examples here that I want to put on the record.

As I said, in the township of Woodgate the fire closed the road for approximately two days. I went down and spoke to the individuals who were parked on the side of the road who were separated from their loved ones, and these were challenging circumstances—a father whose wife was still at Woodgate and couldn’t get out; individuals who had elderly parents on one side of the fire break and they were on the other. These were very, very difficult times, and the Woodgate Rural Fire Brigade were single-handedly awarded the volunteer organisation of the year by the Woodgate community on Australia Day. Can I say, there are no more deserving recipients. Many of them are retired, and they spent literally days fighting this fire.

I want to go to another report by the national broadcaster where they interviewed volunteer firefighter and farmer Roger Draper. Roger said that the new regulations in Queensland had had a major impact on how they tackled the Walkers Point blaze. Walkers Point is a small community at Woodgate—it is in the same location and was the same fire. He said:

All the new rules mean the firies have to sit on the break and wait for the main front to come to them before they can put it out.

Mr Deputy Speaker Zimmerman, I’m not sure what your experience is in fighting fires, but when there’s a 40-kilometre-per-hour wind up the backside of these things and it’s 60-, 80- or 100-feet high, that is incredibly risky and incredibly brave.

In the remainder of the report, Mr Draper said:

… that fire eventually jumped into the council area, and because we could not back-burn that Wednesday evening it created another two days of extra work to stop the fire on the western end.

We have to give local control back to the individuals who are on the ground. These are fast-moving situations. Certainly there is always a need for oversight, but as a former canefarmer—and many canefarmers used to burn an awful lot of their product every single year—I can say that there are particular periods when you get a small gap to do something substantial. These individuals waited 2½ hours for an approval to back-burn to defend the Woodgate community. This fire would have basically been controlled if they were allowed—and in their view they were stopped from doing just that.

My community has been very fortunate to date. I’m advised it’s raining there right now, and I hope that continues. But we live in a nation of extremes. This has been a tragic fire season, and we need to put forward practical responses that actually make a difference. Regardless of what level of government is responsible, we need to get our heads down, get our heads together and deliver for the people we represent, because they are the ones who lose their lives and their properties, and there are all those other issues associated with natural disasters. Thank you.

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