Natural Resources Committee: Pinery Bushfires | SPEECH


Mr VAN HOLST PELLEKAAN ( Stuart ) ( 11:42 :03 ): I thank the Natural Resources Committee for taking such a strong interest in this event. When I use the word ‘event’, it seems to really downplay the very significant importance of the Pinery fire, but I do really appreciate the fact that the Natural Resources Committee takes a great interest in a whole range of issues across our state. I also appreciate the fact that I was invited to participate in their tour, but very unfortunately it just was not possible for me to go that day.

The day of the fire itself was actually a pretty terrifying day from a bushfire risk perspective. In our electorate of Stuart over the last six years, we have had five very serious bushfires—four in the Upper Mid North/Southern Flinders area and one in the Far North East of the state—so it is something that is never very far from my mind. On that day of the fire, I was actually thinking more fearfully about parts of the electorate of Stuart farther north than where the Pinery fire actually happened.

All day, as the day was building up and getting worse and worse through the morning, I was thinking about the places further north that I thought were at greater risk. At about 12 o’clock, I think it was, when it became apparent that there was a fire building and becoming serious in the Pinery region, to be fair, it caught me a bit by surprise. But do you know what? It caught everybody else by surprise, too. It was not expected.

Our experience with fires in general is typically with regard to bushfires, and typically we think that if a bushfire burns itself out towards a stubble paddock, that will be a tremendous opportunity to fight the fire and hopefully stop it there. But, of course, the difference was that these were not stubble paddocks (this was early in the season) but crops. They were crops that had not had a great deal of rain on them toward the end of the growing season, so they were pretty well cured, so there were exceptionally high fuel loads in these paddocks. That really is what separated this fire so early in the fire season from what we are far more used to dealing with, which are fires much later in the fire season.

I arrived at Kapunda, which is the southern end of the electorate of Stuart, the next day at 6.45am, and I can tell members it was bedlam at that stage. Nobody in the town was at risk of being burnt or anything like that at that point in time, but there were people still trying to leave town and there were people trying to come back to town. It very quickly became apparent that what had been shared over the public media and social media the previous afternoon and evening had not resulted, unfortunately, in a careful, measured, effective and useful set of messages for people.

Some people had been told to go to the school at Kapunda, some people had been told to go to the oval at Kapunda and some people had been told to evacuate Kapunda, keeping in mind that Kapunda, while it did not immediately suffer any effects from the fire, was under extreme threat late the previous afternoon. Some people were told to evacuate to Eudunda, and when they got there they were told, ‘No, Eudunda is under threat, you need to evacuate to Morgan.’ I know people who left and went to Morgan to try to keep themselves and their families, and particularly young children, safe from the fire, at the same time as other people were told, ‘No, stay right in the middle of Kapunda.’ I am not saying that to have a go at anybody, I say it because it is one of the really important lessons that we all need to learn out of this experience.

The electorate of Stuart, out of all the electorates that were affected by this fire, was affected nominally less than the other state electorates. Let me tell you, Deputy Speaker, the impact on one family, one farm or one person is devastating, and it does not matter whether there was 80 per cent in one electorate and 20 per cent in the other, or 20 per cent in the first electorate and 80 per cent in the other, it is actually all about people. The people in the electorate of Stuart, who were affected by this fire, have suffered, and are still suffering, just as much as the people and the families in any other electorate, even though there may well have been more of them in other electorates.

It is a terrifying and devastating experience. I have friends who were caught up in the Wangary fire, which is a long time ago now, who are still scarred mentally from that experience. I have had people contact me after the Bangor fire, particularly people who were under no threat during the Bangor fire but who were under threat during the Mount Remarkable fire 20-plus years earlier, and when the Bangor fire came along it brought back all these extraordinary fears, emotions and wounds, which apparently were healed, but when a similar threat came along it was clear were not actually properly healed.

Something else we need to get out of all of this is: what is the very best that we can do for the people caught up in the Pinery fire? Not just with regard to the very important job of helping them recover their lives, their businesses, their homes, their fences, their sheds, their stock, etc., but what can we do so that in 20 years’ time they are not still suffering in the same way that some people in my electorate, in the Mount Remarkable district, are. These are the responsibilities that we have in the aftermath of this fire.

It goes without saying that I and everybody in this place have extraordinary appreciation for all the volunteers who helped, as well as the people who work professionally in government agencies. Of course, we think of emergency services workers most immediately because they are the ones on the front line, but an enormous number of people have provided support, and still are, in a volunteer and professional capacity in an enormous number of different ways.

Of course, I want to put on the record my thanks to Mr Vince Monterola who has coordinated so much of that effort. I have met with him and I will continue to support Mr Alex Zimmerman, who has recently taken over from him, who has another big task still to do. I attended several meetings in the district at the time, as I know many other local MPs and some government ministers did as well, and I think this is a very good example of when the stuff hits the fan, everybody comes together to do the very best they can. I understand and agree with the comments that the members for Hammond and Goyder made about fees and charges and things, and I support them entirely. However, separate to that, I know that the government was doing everything it possibly could at the time to productively and effectively deal with and help the people who were affected by the fire, and I thank them for that.

Minister Bignell (the Minister for Agriculture) and I attended a function together at the Schuster family farm, which had many people from the Pinery district and, particularly, the more immediate Freeling district. Lots of functions like that were held, and I think there is certainly a need for them to continue to be held and for Liberal, Labor and Independent MPs to support them to the very best of their abilities. As I said before, the fire is out, but the issues are not over, they are not dealt with.

As to future fires, we probably will see more and more—certainly the risks are growing anyway, let’s hope we do not see more and more fires—but certainly the risks are growing with fires. The seasons are pretty good at the moment and agricultural techniques are getting better and better. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, when we compare what happened in Pinery last November with what happened in Bangor 2½ years ago, with similar weather threats, there were completely different outcomes in completely different parts of the state. We need to be right onto this.

I would like to finish by saying that I worry about bushfires all over the state, particularly, of course, in my electorate of Stuart. The Natural Resources Committee did a body of work a few years ago with regard to the Adelaide Hills. I am terrified about what might happen in the Adelaide Hills. Please, let what happened in Pinery be a very stark and real reminder for us that these threats are moving south every year.