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Victorian Bushfires – This is no time for ‘business as usual’

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MR MORRIS (Mornington) (14:05): I rise to support the motion of the Premier expressing the condolences of the house to those individuals and communities that have been affected by the recent fires, rightly recognising the courage and the commitment of all those who have served during this fire campaign and expressing our thanks to all who have contributed, whether from Victoria, interstate or overseas.

When the house last met these fires had been burning for a week. Almost 70 days later, we look back on 3500 individual fires. Seven, I understand, are still burning, five lives have been lost, more than 1.5 million hectares have been burnt, over 400 houses and more than 600 sheds and other structures have been destroyed and at least 7000 head of sheep and cattle are now dead.

Beyond the loss of life and the loss of property the environmental impact has been immense. More than 50 per cent of the habitat available for 173 rare and threatened species has been lost in these fires, and as we know, millions of birds and animals have been killed, to say nothing of the flora.

Exactly a week before Christmas I visited East Gippsland, and I recall very vividly driving through a smoky Bairnsdale at about 6.30 in the morning, thinking to myself, ‘Where is this going and how is it going to end?’.

I was in the east to visit the Errinundra Plateau, the subject of legislation to extend the boundaries of the existing national park. As members know, we dealt with this legislation late last year, and it is now in the other place. I was travelling with the member for Gippsland East, and as we drove through the bush up Greens Road we climbed up to about 800 metres above sea level. We were able to go as far as the Big River Track. Unfortunately the road was blocked at that point.

I can only say I am so glad that I was able to make that trip when I did, because less than two weeks later it was gone, absolutely gone.

While we know the Australian bush is resilient, given the fuel load in that location and the fuel load that I witnessed personally—and we certainly remarked upon it at the time—I expect that the intensity of that fire was such that the forest will never be the same again—and it certainly will not be the same again in my lifetime.

I am sure all members do join with me in thanking everyone who was involved in the response. Our CFA volunteers have yet again been outstanding, Forest Fire Management Victoria fighters equally so. The career firefighters of the CFA and the MFB, the SES volunteers and staff, Victoria Police, in the later stages of the emergency the ADF, the staff at the affected municipalities and from councils around the state that came in to help, and community leaders throughout the fire areas have all served their communities magnificently.

Once again, I think they have exceeded expectations, and I certainly thank them for it.

I was able to visit Corryong last Friday, and it was only too clear, looking at what had happened, what might have been. That potential disaster was averted there, as it was in Cann River and at Mallacoota and in so many other towns and settlements across the north-east and across East Gippsland is eloquent testimony to the efforts of the first responders and those who have worked in the weeks since those events to get local communities going again.

Victoria has a long history of bushfires. We know records go back to 1851, but of course the history of fire in this state extends to millennia. But fire on the scale we have seen in the last two months is extraordinary. The area lost to fire this year is exceeded only by the fires of 1939, when up to 2 million hectares were lost. But if you look at the records, losses in fire years of 100 000 hectares to perhaps 300 000 hectares in a bad year pretty much fit the pattern.

Fires on this scale are not part of that pattern. Since the turn of the century—and I am mean the most recent turn of the century—Victorians have experienced the Alpine fires of 2003, when 1.3 million hectares were lost; the 2006–07 fires in the north-east when 1.2 million hectares were lost; and the 2009 fires where, as others have remarked, 430 000 hectares were lost, but we lost 173 lives. And since 21 November last, more than 1.5 million hectares has been lost.

To put that in perspective, in those four fires alone more than 4.4 million hectares of the state has been burnt. Contrast that figure with the major fires between 1950 and 2000: in that whole 50 years, 1.499 million hectares was lost, less than one-third of the area lost in the last 20 years.

So it is clear this is not business as usual; we cannot treat it as business as usual. If we do not develop a proper fuel reduction and forest management program—and I say both, not one or the other—and one that actually works on the ground, not just on paper, then we are doomed, literally doomed.

In the last two years barely 200 000 hectares has been treated by planned burns. The fire operations plans approved following the introduction of the current policy, the Safer Together policy, set targets for the years 2016 to 2019 of 865 000 hectares. Three hundred and thirty thousand hectares were burnt, and that is simply not good enough.

I know it is hard. I do not underestimate the size of the task. If resources are needed, we have got to do it; we have got to get it done. This is a problem that is not going to go away. It is simply going to get worse. It is fine to have plans, but they need to be implemented.

If things do not change, then this condolence motion is likely to become an annual event at the beginning of the parliamentary year, and we cannot let that happen.