Alister Henskens portrait
Alister Henskens portrait


2019/20 Bushfire Season

Mr ALISTER HENSKENS (Ku-ring-gai) (19:34:53): I speak on behalf of the people of Ku-ring-gai on this condolence motion to honour the loss of precious life, to acknowledge the terrible impact that these bush fires have had on people's lives and property, to recognise the bravery of our emergency services personnel and to offer my sympathy to those affected by the bushfires in this most extraordinary summer. It is a summer the likes of which we have not experienced before—it is nothing like anything that has occurred before in my life.

When I was a kid growing up, Australia Day was not only our national day but it was a psychological marker. It was the time when you had a barbecue to celebrate the end of summer. After Australia Day you stopped putting board shorts on when you woke up in the morning and started to put on your school uniform. Throughout my life I have never looked forward to the end of summer but this year Australia Day could not have come quickly enough. For the first time in my life I wanted summer to end. I suppose we are all trying to process these past months in our own way. Yesterday the Deputy Premier described it as "the summer from hell". As the words spoken already in this condolence motion show, that description is not an exaggeration.

At the very least, we have all been impacted by the smoke in the air created by the unprecedented magnitude of these horrific fires across the State. That smoke and the threat of bushfires is still with us as many fires continue to burn in our State and across our nation. From the outset it is appropriate to not only give condolences for those who have suffered loss but also to thank all of the RFS and State Emergency Service volunteers, the police, Fire and Rescue NSW, other emergency service workers, public servants, the Commissioner of the Rural Fire Service, the Premier, members of Parliament and everybody who has worked so hard to help the people impacted by these bushfires.

I will speak later about some of the volunteers from my electorate who have helped fight these fires but the response of the Ku-ring-gai community has been quite extraordinary. In addition to the work of our RFS volunteers many people have been involved in local fundraising and in-kind donations organised by Rotary and Lions clubs, Turramurra Community Bank and sporting, school and community groups. This is a great indication of the empathy and sympathy for those impacted by these fires and the community in which we live. For example, at 3.30 p.m. this Sunday 9 February, at Claude Cameron Grove Dog Park, Westbrook Avenue, Wahroonga, a "bark run" is being held to raise funds for the New Killara Rural Fire Service Brigade. I encourage our community to attend. It is a chance for people to bring their dogs, friends and family along to thank our RFS volunteers and help raise vital funds for the Killara brigade.

The Ku-ring-gai electorate is boarded by two national parks and many of us have thought "but for the grace of God go I". Despite living in an urban area, in the early 1990s bushfires impacted the Ku-ring-gai community. We understand that it could so easily have been our area of the State losing life and property. In Australia our homes are our cherished private sanctuary. One thing that really struck me when I was reading about the 25 people who lost their lives is that many of them died in or near their homes. As that typically iconic Australian movieThe Castle amply demonstrated, in our country we consider that our home is a safe haven. It is our special private place where treasures can be dispatched to the pool room and where we share moments with the people that we love. The psychological importance of our homes cannot be put into words. It was best described inThe Castle as "just the vibe of the thing".

Those impacted by these fires have had their safe places penetrated. People have lost cherished loved ones. They will never again get to sit around a dinner table with them or to enjoy a cup of coffee or tea with them. They have lost photographs, trinkets and memories of good times. Probably in the depression that many of them are suffering at the moment, they have lost hope itself. Through the terrible bushfires, some people in New South Wales lost their lives in or near their homes. We do not know the names of all of them, which is tragic as we cannot publicly acknowledge all of them by name. Bob Lindsay, aged 77, and Gwen Hyde, aged 68, of Coongbar died in October last year, side by side, trying to save their isolated property. They were a couple who fell in love later in life and left behind children from former relationships.

In November last year Vivian Chaplain, aged 69, of Diehard was protecting her home and animals when the Kangawalla blaze tore through the Northern Tablelands community of Wytaliba and took her life. George Nole, aged 85 and also of Diehard, was also taken. He was a Greek-born Australian and an electronics genius who had worked on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's [NASA] Apollo space missions. He also died in his home. Julie Fletcher, aged 63, of Johns River had a longstanding family connection with that area. She loved her Angus cattle so much that she could never sell them for slaughter. "Her cows died happy and old," her friend said. She was described as a "kind and thoughtful lady". Julie was found in her burnt-out home in November after the fast-moving fire took her life.

Barry Parsons, aged 58, of Willawarrin left a poignant Facebook post shortly before he died in November last year, describing the fires around him. He was found not far from his shed where he would care for stray cats. His friends referred to him as "a lovely, peaceful and gentle" man. Chris Savva, aged 64, of South Arm was a long-term resident of the town near Bowraville. The wooden bridge that was his only line of escape from the fires near his home was destroyed by the flames. In November last year his sport utility vehicle ran down an embankment when he tried to make it back home from the bridge. He was described as a "doting father" and his grandchildren were the apple of his eye. He was a wonderful man. He was incredibly kind and had a great sense of humour.

At the end of December a 59-year-old unnamed man died after being rescued from his rural property at Yarrowitch, about 70 kilometres south-east of Walcha. He had severe burns. He was found in a water tank, after trying to stay and defend his property from the Stockyard Flat fire. On 30 December Robert Salway, aged 63, and his 29-year-old son, Patrick, lost their lives at Wandella while trying to save their home. If the loss of a father and son is not enough, Patrick's wife, Renee, is expecting a child. Within 30 hours of their death, Robert's elderly mother, Edna, died without learning of her son and grandson's fate.

A day later, Laurie Andrews, aged 70, of Yatte Yattah was found deceased outside his home on Myrtle Gully Road. Laurie was a former Shoalhaven Water site supervisor and a founding member of the Mollymook Longboarders. He was remembered as a stylish surfer and all-round great bloke. On that same day an unidentified man, aged 56, was discovered outside a home at Coolagolite, near Cobargo, where his property had been reduced to ash in just minutes. The man was private and kept to himself.

Col Burns, aged 72, of Belowra also died that day. He was a RFS volunteer. He was off duty on his isolated property when it was hit by the same fire that flared and hit towns, including Cobargo. On that day another unidentified man, aged 75, of Yatte Yattah was found in a burnt-out car on the road off the Princes Highway near the fire-ravaged community of Lake Conjola, where 89 homes were lost. On the first day of this year Michael Campbell, aged 62, of Sussex Inlet was found in his car. On 4 January David Harrison, aged 47, of Batlow died of a heart attack as he battled to save his best mate's home from the Dunns Road blaze. He refused to leave his school friend alone to fight the fires. David's brother described him as "a great Aussie hero" who was "hands down the favourite uncle to his nieces and nephews". He said that when David walked in a room "you would just smile".

On 6 January John Smith, aged 71, of Nerrigundah was found. He is believed to have died fighting to save his property in the tiny community inland from Bodalla. Earlier his 10-year-old daughter Emerald had used the Coles gift cards she had been given for her birthday to buy treats to make goodie bags for RFS volunteers to take on their truck. On 18 January an unidentified man aged 84 years died at Cobargo. He suffered critical burns at his home when he is believed to have been trying to defend his property. On 23 January Michael Clarke, a pecan farmer aged 59, told friends he would barricade himself in the shower in his home. The fire surrounded his property and he had limited opportunity to save himself. His son described Michael as a great guy "Australia epitomised".

In starting a tribute to our firefighters it occurred to me that a few years ago, on the centenary of Anzac Day, I privately asked the questions: Would we do today as the Anzacs did 100 year ago? Would we give our lives to protect the community? Would we be so brave and selfless? Does our generation have the qualities of that generation? Whilst I hope large volumes of civilian volunteers will not have to go again to fight an offshore war, the inspirational work of the RFS volunteers in this time of crisis has answered those questions with an emphatic "yes". In every sense they meet the description of modern-day heroes.

The first two RFS volunteers to tragically be taken were Geoff Keaton and Andrew O'Dwyer. They were men in their early thirties. They were best mates and they were both fathers. They died in terrifying conditions, battling the Green Wattle Creek fire near Buxton. Unfortunately, a giant gum tree—sadly called a "widow‑maker"—ended their lives. At their funeral their young children, Charlotte O'Dwyer, aged 18 months, and Harvey Keaton, aged 19 months, were told their dads had left only because they were heroes. The sadness around their deaths is almost unimaginable.

The next RFS volunteer to be taken was Samuel McPaul, aged 28. He was with the Culcairn North West brigade as they fought to save properties along the Murray River. His crew had entered a paddock to round up cattle. They were on flat ground just 50 metres from the farm gate with little around to burn, but the Green Valley fire was so large it created its own weather system, whipping up 140 kilometres-an-hour winds. Two of his crew mates were injured at the same time. He and his wife, Megan, had been married for 18 months and she was pregnant with their first child, due on 4 May. Culcairn fire captain Andrew Godde, who was in charge of the truck, described McPaul as a "ripping young bloke" who would always put others before himself.

Sam's death particularly resonated with me personally. He was very like me at 28 years of age. He coached and played basketball like I did. He was a basketball manager and administrator, as I was at the same age. He was obviously a very community-minded person, being an RFS volunteer as well. Like other people who have died in these fires he had much to look forward to. It is tragic that he will never get to meet his child. Then we lost the three American airmen, Captain Ian McBeth, 44, First Officer Paul Hudson, 42, and Flight Engineer Rick DeMorgan, 43. These three gentlemen came to our country to help fight our fires. They were extraordinarily well credentialed and experienced, each with outstanding military careers in the United States of America. It was so tragic that they lost their lives when their plane came down.

Ku-ring-gai has two local RFS brigades: the Ku-ring-gai and Killara brigades. The Killara brigade is only two years old. Both brigades have been engaged in fighting the New South Wales bushfires since August last year. The brigades' tankers and crews have been deployed to fires from the Queensland border to the Snowy Mountains and all points in between. In the past few days crews from the two brigades have been fighting the fires in the Australian Capital Territory and southern areas of New South Wales. The crews were also deployed to Queensland in August. Those deployments have varied in duration from 12 to 14 hours through to five days.

The four Killara and Ku-ring-gai tankers were the first RFS tankers on the scene at the Turramurra fires, which occurred in November last year on the first of Sydney's catastrophic fire danger days. Fortunately, that fire was quickly contained with the assistance of multiple strike teams and air assets, including a C‑130 air tanker. Unfortunately, one of the Killara brigade members, Yoel Hyman, whom I know well, broke his arm while fighting that fire. That incident was reported in the media. Although that injury has taken him off the fire line for the rest of the season, Yoel has been running bushfire survival plan meetings and working with Ku‑ring‑gai residents to prepare their plans. The crews from the Ku-ring-gai and Killara brigades have experienced the heartbreaking loss of homes and outbuildings, together with the elation of saving other homes and businesses. They have saved much more than they have lost.

In addition to these deployments, the brigades have had crews on stand‑by during total fire ban days of elevated fire danger in the Sydney region. Brigade members have also undertaken extensive community engagement activities, assisting Ku-ring-gai residents to understand the risks they face and to prepare bushfire survival plans. In all, around 80 members of the two brigades have contributed to this vital work in the period since August 2019. Unfortunately, the emergency is not yet over. Indeed, there is every indication that the brigades' services will be required for many weeks yet. Andrew Wilson is the captain of the Killara brigade and Nic Lyons is the captain of the Ku-ring-gai brigade. It would be remiss of me to speak on this condolence motion without also drawing attention to the incident that occurred at Mogo on 23 January 2020, in which a fire truck from one of our local brigades flipped over. One of the injured firefighters, Ian, said:

Things just went black. We just kind of approached the barrier and went straight through it. We started rolling around just like being in a washing machine.

Thankfully the men managed to escape the truck, landing upright after crashing into an embankment at Mogo. They were treated for minor head, back and neck injuries at Batemans Bay Hospital. It should be noted that one of the RFS volunteers on board was Luca Dahl, the current school captain of Ku-ring-gai High School. He has been volunteering in the service for four years. His father, Lars, was also in the truck. Luca, his father and the men in the truck that day epitomise the contribution that our local firefighters have made throughout the State helping to fight fires in the areas I have mentioned. Even though the bushfire emergencies in our State have been an enormous physical challenge to life and property, they have certainly brought out the very best in people. People have supported each other and put their lives at risk. Without the hard work of all the emergency services workers we could reasonably expect far greater losses than have happened, both of people and of property.

This condolence motion is a very fitting tribute not only to the people who have died but also to the people who have stayed alive due to the efforts of all of those emergency service responders. It is very appropriate that this week Government business has been suspended in the New South Wales Parliament to acknowledge the great contribution from people, the tragic loss of life and property and the impact the fires have had and will continue to have on people's lives and to let people know that we are sorry for their loss and that we will be with them as they rebuild their lives.