Mark Coulton MP, Federal Member for Parkes

Statement on Natural Disasters

Friday, 15 February 2013

Statement on Natural Disasters

 Mr COULTON (ParkesThe Nationals Chief Whip) (12:47): I too rise here this afternoon to speak about the natural disasters that happen around Australia, particularly the ones in my electorate of Parkes. To show the diversity of Australia but particularly of my electorate, I was dealing with floods and bushfires at the same time. Indeed, as I speak, areas around Mungindi are still dealing with floodwater that has come down the Weir River from Central Queensland as result of the tropical cyclone that did such a lot of damage a couple of weeks ago. It caught the residents of the Boomi-Mungindi area somewhat unawares and there have been stock losses through that area.

I would like to focus my comments today on Coonabarabran. The town of Coonabarabran had a couple of fires, but the major one started in the Warrumbungle National Park. It took several days to contain it, but the majority of the damage was done in the first six or seven hours from the time it got going in the park. That was part of a couple of days of intense weather, with electrical and wind storms that did a lot of damage right through the area. There were fires in the Warialda area and at Collarenebri and they were contained, but the one at Coonabarabran was a problem. The final count was 53 homes lost at Coonabarabran, hundreds of kilometres of fencing and large amounts of livestock, as well as quite a lot of our native flora and fauna from the Warrumbungle National Park.

To highlight the ongoing effects of this fire, the Lill family at Coonabarabran lost several thousand acres of grass and one of their homesteads, and the wind generated by the fire did not actually burn the woolshed but blew it apart.

They have lost—I think this was the final count—something like a couple of hundred stud cows. At the moment the Lills are hand-feeding 30 or 40 poddy calves because the mothers have perished in the fire or are so badly burnt that they cannot nurture their calves.

They have an artificial breeding centre on this farm and they own a stud bull that has semen straws and offspring right through South America and around the world. It is one of the leading red Brangus sires in Australia. They found him sheltering the next day in the dry river bed of the Castlereagh River with burns to 40 per cent of his body. I have seen the photos that Stephen Lill has sent of this great bull. Stephen tells me that the bull has a will to live and is eating but whether he will have any future as a stud sire is yet to be seen.

So the immediate loss, above insurance, for the Lill family is in excess of half a million dollars but the ongoing costs would be in excess of a couple of million dollars because in 2015 they will not have any bulls to sell because their mothers and those calves perished. The photographs of these stud cows and calves, burnt and dead, indicated the ferocity of the fire, because they were not crowded into a corner or panicked. They died as they stood where they were grazing. Cows and calves, side by side, were spread around. That is a sight I have never seen before.

I would like to thank the Prime Minister for her visit; the people of Coonabarabran appreciated very much the fact that the Prime Minister of our land spent some time with them. The irony of that was that nearly exactly 12 months before, the Prime Minister was in my electorate looking at flood damage at Moree. When we inspected the area around Coonabarabran with the Prime Minister you could see trees that had been vaporised. At Bob Fenwick's house, which many people saw on TV—Bob was the volunteer fire-fighter who was away protecting other property while his own place burnt down—there was a green mown lawn which had had water under it because the water tanks melted in the fire. The fire burnt across the lawn.

My comments on that day were that the losses were tragic but that what was saved was incredible. Because of the ferocity of the fire the helicopters and the planes were unable to do anything about it. I think in four hours it travelled 40 kilometres in an easterly direction until a wind change headed it north. Then there were real problems because the front was 40 kilometres wide and heading north. What saved many of the houses was that as the fire front blew over, the helicopters and the planes dumped retardant on top of these houses that were smouldering. We saw that everything else was gone—the car shed, the cars, the machinery, livestock and fences. Just the houses were sitting there because of the work of the fire-fighters.

Indeed, the crew that were up at Siding Springs Observatory, which is Australia's iconic sight for space studies, managed to save the observatory and some of the buildings, although they lost some of the buildings. As the crew followed the fire back into town they put out quite a few of the houses. If the crew had not been there those houses would have burnt because there was no-one there to tend them.

The fire has had a devastating effect. I have spoken of the Lill family, but they are just one of many who have had incredible losses. I was speaking to Steve Bradshaw, the ex-assistant commissioner of police who has been sent to Coonabarabran to coordinate the recovery effort. He thinks there are a few people who will move on; it is just all too hard for them and they will not rebuild.

I will continue a little longer on the fire. The amount of effort and the change in the way fires are fought in the last few years was very evident.

There were hundreds of firefighters there. There were mobile command centres. The airport up there had helicopters and fixed wing planes. They had semitrailers that were there to mix fire retardant. This method of firefighting is quite effective but it is not without some conflicts. I hope there is a debriefing because a lot of the work that saved homesteads and pasture was actually done by landholders. Take a landholder like my good friend Warwick Knight. The fire got within 100 metres of his boundary. He and his neighbours, who did suffer loss, back on to some quite rough country and they spent days up there with knapsacks and McLeod tools putting in breaks up over cliff faces and all sorts of things to save it all. So I hope there is a debriefing because, as is always the case when outside forces come into a local area, there is a lack of communication, a little bit of rivalry. It has always got to be remembered that with all the technology in the world local knowledge is still a wonderful tool in fighting a fire. I hope that in the wash-up of this there is some consideration of that.

There has also been a mix of criticism and praise for the national parks people, praise for the effort that they put in in fighting the fire but criticism not individually of those people but of Parks as they have been somewhat reluctant to back-burn in cool times and the fuel load in that park was incredible, as was the fuel load on private land. After 12 months of an exceptionally wet season, with huge bodies of feed, and then a very, very dry spring and early summer, this was always going to be a possibility. That is another thing that needs to be followed up from the wash-up of this fire, how public land is managed and also how private land is managed and some of the restrictions on land clearing and tree clearing when people are wanting to put in adequate breaks, so that also needs to be looked at.

As with all disasters, there are great stories of mateship and of people coming to help. With the mayor's appeal I was at Coonabarabran on Saturday at a fundraiser as the local jockey club had a race day to raise funds for the people that were affected by the fire. Before that race day the mayor's fund was up over $430,000 thanks to the people that had donated to it and I am sure they had a successful day with, I am guessing, about 3,000 people at Coonabarabran on Saturday to show support. So people have come in and BlazeAid have been remarkable and now the Coonabarabran showground is a little camping ground to which people have come from all over Australia, volunteering their time to help reconstruct fences. Take the Men's Shed groups. I know that in a couple of weeks the Wellington Men's Shed are sending 28 or 30 of their members up for a week to help reconstruct fences. It takes a while because these people that have lost so much have got to gather their thoughts, they have got to have access to some funds to purchase materials, they have got to know what has to be done and put everything in place. You cannot just have a working bee turn up without the planning that goes into it. So that is happening at the moment.

I am a little disappointed, unless something has happened in the last day that I have not been aware of, that the category C announcement is still being worked out between the state and federal governments. I certainly hope that announcement is made because that would enable the $15,000 grants to come though—and they would not cover it but they would go some of the way towards the purchase of fencing material for those people that need to do it.

I would like to congratulate the community. When she was there the Prime Minister saw for herself the scene. Children as young as five and six up to teenagers and our more senior residents were there for days, making sandwiches, putting lunch packs together along with the local volunteer firefighters as well and everyone that came together. I would like to make a special mention of the mayor, Peter Shinton. Peter did a wonderful job. He understood his role completely and he was the conduit between Coonabarabran and the outside world. He informed the outside world of what was happening, he motivated the local people and, indeed, I was in regular contact with him. I think that at times of disaster quite often those of us that are local members are better off to stay at a distance and let the experts get on with the job, and certainly Peter was very good with that.

The member for Riverina spoke about telephone services, and there is an issue. Part of the area was covered by an Optus tower. It seems that the arrangement for the emergency call-out is a Telstra arrangement. I will certainly be following through on that to make sure that Optus is included in that, because the people who were at the northern end of the fire—up around Baradine way and Bugaldie—had no phone coverage. As the member for Riverina said, communications is a big issue. In the initial stages when that call went out I spoke to a firefighter from another fire down near Wellington. Because he had no phone service he missed the call-out to the fire. We do need to fix telecommunications in the bush—and, in times of disaster, there is even more of a need to do so.

I will mention just one of the tragedies that occurred. Rob McNaught is a scientist. He has a comet named after him—the McNaught Comet. He works up at Siding Spring. For the last 10 years Rob has been working—partly funded, I might say, by NASA—searching the night skies for asteroids that are coming towards Earth that might eventually pose a problem by colliding with Earth. Being able to identify asteroids 50 or so years out would provide invaluable information. Rob had a lovely mud brick home and, unfortunately, it was destroyed in the fire. A little bit of irony: over the last five years as I have been knocking on doors in this place trying to seek funding for the Siding Spring Observatory, it was not high on everyone's radar but, as it was nearly lost in this fire, I think there is an awareness now that it is an iconic institution. It is Australia's premier observatory. We are very grateful that it has been saved but we should also ensure that it is adequately funded into the future.

In closing, I acknowledge that Coonabarabran has had a big blow. It is going to take many, many years for the people of Coonabarabran and the economy of that town to recover. The upside is that it has brought that community closer together—to realise that they are stronger than they thought they were and to realise that they have more friends than they thought they had. As a community they are in great heart to take on what next comes their way.



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