Wilmington Bushfires


Mr VAN HOLST PELLEKAAN (Stuart) (15:18): I rise today on 16 February—which I trust everyone in this house knows is the 29th anniversary of the Ash Wednesday fires—to speak briefly about the fires that we had in Wilmington in January. In no way do they compare to the devastation that happened 29 years ago, other than by explaining the wonderful support from volunteers from all walks of life who came out to support us near Wilmington on Wednesday 4 January through until Saturday 7 January.

The fire started around the middle of the day on Wednesday, and, as everyone would understand, the middle of the day on a Wednesday in early January is a time when a lot of people are away, either at work or away on holidays. It was a tough time for the local CFS brigade, which is exceptionally active, and I would say one of the very best in our part of the state. It was a tough time to get volunteers. I was working in Adelaide that day and got home late in the afternoon. I jumped onto the next three 12-hour overnight shifts. But, within 24 hours, there were CFS and other emergency service members, and also volunteers who are not members of emergency service teams, in Wilmington helping our district.

I think the appliance from furthest away that I noticed was from Inman Valley, well south of Adelaide. It is getting close to a 400-kilometre trip for those people to come up and help us. There were hundreds of CFS volunteers in Wilmington and, as members can imagine, as well as coordinating the firefighting that is a very big logistical exercise.

We were exceptionally well supported by the SES, the ambulance service, and MFS and DENR workers. I have to say that with regard to the MFS presence, while they came up to protect homestead buildings—and it is not their fault—the media managed to turn that into the appearance of more danger than there actually was. The town of Wilmington was never under threat.

We had five water bombers on the go, and I pay particular tribute to the Stirling North CFS brigade who, again, were well supported by the SES. The five water bombers were doing 20‑minute round trips, which put the Port Augusta gliding airstrip under extraordinary pressure to refuel and reload with water and retardants. These planes had to turn around in approximately five minutes, so that put them under great pressure, and the Stirling North brigade did a great job.

There were community volunteers who came forward. People were driving trucks and councils supported with earthworks, and there were radio operators. People offered their time to drive people around to and from home to collect things and get food. The catering was a very big part of the logistical exercise, as members would expect, and I particularly thank the Salvation Army, who did what they very often do, which is set up their van and provide support. They provided hundreds of meals every day, along with very active support from the local community. People who had nothing to do with the CFS put several days aside to help with catering, cleaning and whatever was required.

In the end, approximately 20,000 acres was burnt, affecting primarily five families who lost an enormous amount of land. Fortunately, no people, homes or buildings were lost. There were other local landowners who lost land as well, but five families were most immediately affected. Obviously, human life is the most important, but it is sad to say that several hundred sheep perished in this fire, along with many kilometres of fencing, pipelines and water points all destroyed.

In any fire of this scale there is always some debate afterwards about whether or not it could have been fought better. I will leave that issue for another venue. In hindsight, it is often easy to see some things that could have been done better, but my particular point today is to thank all of the volunteers—the CFS particularly, but all the many volunteers who supported the Wilmington district.

The lives of the people who have lost stock and land will be difficult for a year or two. I understand, from speaking with all those families, that they are satisfied with their level of insurance, so I know they will bounce back. Even after the immediacy of the event, the broader community has been very generous, including, I must say, the member for Morphett, who donated hay, and many others from all around the state. Thank you to the CFS and all the other volunteers.


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