Local, Independant and Effective

Fires bring out community spirit strong in Indigo Valley

Posted February 03, 2016


CATHY McGOWAN (Indi) (12:06):  As another Victorian, Member for Corangamite, I acknowledge and support your words, and particularly your words about telecommunications. The story I want to tell the House today is very similar to the member for Corangamite's. It is a tribute to community and to volunteers backed by very effective government.

My story began the week before Christmas, on a Sunday. We had heard it was going to be a really hot day. We knew it was going to be bad, and it was. It was around lunchtime when the word got out that the fire had begun at Barnawartha. Heading south down the Indigo Valley, it jumped the Hume Highway and it burnt—a really intensive wildfire. I am going to spare the details, except to say that about six hours later it rained. That rain, combined with the support, stopped the fire about 10 kays short of Wodonga, the major city in my electorate.

But it is what happened afterwards that I want to place on record in this House today. I want to talk about the work of the CFA—District 24, Paul King and all your team; districts 23 and 22; and the over 70 fire brigades that turned up to support us in Indigo Valley.

I want to acknowledge the New South Wales Rural Fire Service and their fire rescue—crossing the border, coming over and doing that excellent work up at the gap. Not only did you come on the day but you stayed and stayed, and then, three weeks later, when the fire came out of that log—again very close to Wodonga—you were there and you stopped it at the top of the Leneva valley. That was hard, hard work on very rugged country. I want to acknowledge the airborne wing—the magic of your work with those helicopters swooping to pick up the water out of the dam, the siren going, and stopping that fire.

I want to acknowledge all the private providers who provided slip-ons, and the many individuals who turned up; the Red Cross people who staffed the emergency relief centre in Wodonga; and the local hoteliers who provided accommodation for the families that were evacuated. Thank you.

I want to acknowledge the incident control centre and Graham Healy. Congratulations, Graham, on your Fire Service Medal in the Australia Day Honours. I want to acknowledge all the agencies who gathered regularly at that incident control centre to go through what had happened and what needed to happen as we looked at the images coming back from the helicopters and we tried to work out what we needed to do next. Those regular meetings keeping all the agencies in contact made a huge difference.

I want to acknowledge the Victorian government. Today I would like to pay particular attention to the Premier, Daniel Andrews, for coming the day after and spending that whole day with us—touring the Indigo Valley, seeing what happened and talking to the farmers—and to the Minister for Emergency Services, Jane Garrett, for touring the valley and making sure that all the arrangements were in order. They were there when we needed them. They came and they listened. They heard the stories of Coyle sheep. They heard the stories of the four houses that were burnt at Masons Gap and the 39 houses that were not burnt. They heard that no serious injuries occurred, and how that policy of protecting assets and keeping people safe is really working. The local member of parliament for Benambra, Bill Tilley, was constantly a presence, making sure the issues were heard and things were addressed.

I want to acknowledge Christine Ferguson, a regional director with the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and all her staff—particularly for being with us on Christmas Day. We know you had other things which you could have been doing; the fact that you chose to come and share it with us was really appreciated.

I want to acknowledge the commitment of local government—Gerry Smith at Indigo Shire Council, Patience Harrington at Wodonga Council and all your staff—to being there, to doing what needed to be done and to still being there in the weeks afterwards, particularly Gerry and your staff. I want to acknowledge the ABC as our emergency broadcaster, The Border Mail, North East Newspapers, Prime7 television and WIN Television. Never ever have I felt so strongly the need for really strong local and regional media: you did such a fantastic job on the day and the days afterwards. Thank you.

For me, the unique experience this time was that it was my valley—my community—that burned. It was my community that then came in to do what needed to be done. They came to help me and my family and the other hundreds of families that got burnt. Our houses were okay; sure—but our fences had burned, our water pipes had burned, our stock were burned, our sheds were burned, and our gardens were burned. I watched and experienced as my community and neighbours gathered, first on the scene to help with gathering the stock and sorting out the injured from the uninjured, then people who turned up with food: large plates of lasagne—never have I welcomed such food coming from other people!—and the cakes and slices. And then people got underway with the working bees, helping with the house water and with the stock water.

I want to thank the Middle Indigo Primary School and Tammy Zuber who opened up the school during the holidays—and I have to say that Indigo Valley has two community institutions: we have the fire shed and we have the school. Tammy opening the school and keeping it open for weeks provided a public place for people to gather. And, together with Rachael Proctor and the parents of the Middle Indigo School, Tammy offered child care so that there was a safe place for the kids when their parents were out working, a place for food to go, and for people to meet.

I want to acknowledge BlazeAid, who came and set up at the Barnawartha sportsground. For the past month, they have gone out in teams of five to all of our farms. They have helped with that heartbreaking work of pulling up the fences and the pipes, and dismantling the sheds. They have come and they have listened and listened, and provided such practical support. And then, once a week, they invite us farmers down to the Barnawartha sportsground so that we can go and socialise and get to know them. There is a whole new community that has grown up; a national community really. We have had people from the Gold Coast, from Adelaide, from the Mornington Peninsula and of course from our local Albury-Wodonga, who have come out on their days off, joined these local teams, got their overalls on, and up the valley they have gone—and have been such amazing support. I want to acknowledge the Belvoir Rotary Club who have come out and offered us a barbecue—great!

I would now like to thank some very special individuals and name some of them, at the risk of embarrassing them. I acknowledge Bob from Londrigan. It was Christmas time, and Bob arranged for some hams to be delivered up our valley. We have since found out that over $10,000 of hams got delivered—to every single home, and to the CFA. It was such a beautiful thing to be able to sit down there and eat this really tasty ham and know that people were thinking of us. To Katrina and Glen, our local Australia Post people, thank you for what you did—checking in with everybody, keeping an eye on us. I acknowledge the CFA leadership team, Tim and Trish Hibberson, who did a fantastic job—Tim as captain, Trish as communications person—making sure that people knew what they needed to know. To Dave McDonald and all the team, thank you very much. To Jenny Clark and Donna Cross: I think words will never describe the energy, persistence and resilience that you put in being at that fire shed, feeding all the firefighters as they came through, keeping a smile up, getting the rosters in place, and making sure that there was someone there all the time.

In closing, I would like to talk a little bit about some of the learnings from this experience, and to acknowledge the old guys in the Indigo Valley and Barnawartha, like Joe Baynes and Gordon Poulley [Pooley], who take me aside and say, 'Cathy, we know about fires. We were here in 1939, we were here in 1952, and you know about 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2015. There is nothing new for our rural communities in this experience of fire, yet every time it seems to take us with such a shock.' So there needs to be some way that we can take the learnings of this and incorporate it into our culture. Summer comes; fires come. We know the devastation, but we also know what needs to be done. In my community, we have learnt the lessons of Kinglake, Marysville, and Murrindindi. We have really good communication systems. The incident control centre worked well. But I really want to pick up on the words of the member for Corangamite on the absolute need for mobile phones and the NBN. Where it worked, it was great. But where we had those black spots, the community really suffered. We rely so much now on going onto the broadband to getting our information—but if you have no access, or if your mobile phone does not work, all that sort of infrastructure just leaves us behind.

So this is a huge cry out to the Victorian government to continue to support the Commonwealth government mobile phone black spot program and help us invest in those fire prone areas, which Telstra and the other telcos are never going to be able to do by themselves.

I would like to bring my words to a close. It is one of those times in my life where I have felt so proud to be part of a community that is connected, a community that works, a community that is actually networked not only during the fire but also during the support afterwards, and days later when we still gather and share our stories. That sense of belonging to a community and representing a community is so strong. So to the people of Barnawartha, Indigo Valley, Yackandandah, Wooragee, Wodonga and the surrounding areas: just a heartfelt thank you for being there for us and to say that we will absolutely be there for you.

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