Rural Fires Amendment (Bush Fire Prevention) Bill 2015

Dr HUGH McDERMOTT (Prospect) [5.04 p.m.]: I address the House in support of the Rural Fires Amendment (Bush Fire Prevention) Bill 2015, with appropriate amendments that will be moved by the Opposition. Bushfires are one of Australia's most common natural disasters. Over the past half century more than 300 Australians have been killed, in the most horrifying way, as a result of bushfires. First, I pay tribute to all the lives lost to Australian bushfires and to the brave men and women of the Rural Fire Service [RFS], Fire and Rescue NSW, NSW Ambulance Service and their equivalent agencies throughout Australia. The Rural Fires Amendment (Bush Fire Prevention) Bill 2015 will legalise vegetation clearing near buildings, including farm sheds, under the 10/50 vegetation clearing scheme. This will allow the complete clearance of vegetation within 10 metres of a building and clearance of non-tree vegetation within 50 metres of a building.

Reasonable clearance of vegetation is essential for protecting buildings and people in areas at risk of bushfires. However, it is important that any regulation that allows the clearance of vegetation includes strategies to balance environmental impact with the potential derivative of increased safety. There is a limit to the amount of safety clearing vegetation can bring in the case of bushfires, and it is the responsibility of the New South Wales Government to ensure that the environment is not adversely impacted by this limit being exceeded. Last year the New South Wales Government accepted 30 recommendations put forward by the Rural Fire Service, including placing restrictions on areas where vegetation could be cleared. The RFS did not make these recommendations lightly. It understands that vegetation clearance is important to preventing bushfire damage. However, it has done a phenomenal job in offering a balance between protecting our State's most vulnerable bushland with the need to take measures to control bushfires.

Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons and his team have worked tirelessly to develop these recommendations and they should be congratulated on this work. Under the current policy, no approval is required for landowners to clear land within 10 metres of a building, within a zone designated by the Commissioner of the Rural Fire Service. This regulation has been in effect for more than a year, and in that time six key areas of concern have arisen. First, the scheme relies on a self-assessment model; secondly, there is no registry of properties that have used the 10/50 rule to clear vegetation; thirdly, the scheme does not take into account threatened species, habitats or ecological communities; fourthly, there is no involvement of local councils in determining categories of vegetation zones; fifthly, there is no publicly available code of practice; and, finally, there is no clear map of the entitlement area for use of the 10/50 rule, despite a redefinition of the rule presented by the Government.

We are extremely lucky to have the Rural Fire Service in New South Wales. The RFS is the world's largest volunteer fire brigade, with more than 70,000 volunteers, of which I am one. The RFS and its previous incarnations have been on call for every bushfire in New South Wales for more than a century and have saved countless lives and homes from ferocious bushfires. I strongly believe the RFS is succeeding in its mission to provide a world standard of excellence in the provision of a community-based fire and emergency service and offering the highest standards of training, community education, prevention and operational capability. I am extremely proud of its achievements, as I am sure are all members of this House.

In a large part due to the efforts of the New South Wales RFS, our State has managed to prevent the deaths of hundreds, possibly thousands, of people in bushfires. Sadly, not everyone has been saved. In the past 30 years 14 lives and hundreds of homes have been lost to fire in New South Wales. Each year hundreds of firefighters are injured in the line of duty. Over a 10-year period between 2002 and 2012 there were more than 7,000 reported injuries and five fatalities among firefighters in New South Wales. This figure is extraordinary. Factoring in other emergency workers, the figure goes to more than 8,000 reported injuries. Without the selflessness of the hundreds of men and women who are being injured each year while saving the New South Wales community from fire and accidents, I fear that many more lives would be lost.

I pay tribute to one member of the Rural Fire Service who passed away recently. David Black was a pilot assisting the RFS by water bombing fires and tragically lost his life on 24 October 2013 while trying to save the community from fires near Ulladulla. Mr Black was a highly skilled pilot with more than 10,000 flight hours, yet he made the ultimate sacrifice while trying to save others. Witnesses say that the wings of his plane literally fell off the fuselage before crashing. Unfortunately, his body could not be retrieved for days as the crash site was surrounded by flames and smoke from the fires that Mr Black was fighting.

Water-bombing helicopters and plane pilots are integral to fighting bushfires, and many RFS volunteers have stories to tell about the great work these pilots do and how they have saved their bacon time and time again. I also commend the firefighters of Fire and Rescue NSW for their bravery during the 2013 fires. I particularly mention two people, one of whom lives on the border of my electorate of Prospect. The two people are Onur Ayyildiz and Grant Quinlan, senior firefighters who have recently been awarded medals for bravery. They put themselves in harm's way when rescuing a 30-year-old woman who was found on her property and was about to be engulfed in flames. Onur did not hesitate in taking off his oxygen mask and firefighting coat to prevent a horrendous tragedy. It is worth noting that Onur works full-time as a firefighter for Fire and Rescue NSW and is also a volunteer firefighter for the RFS Horsley Park brigade.

In October 2013, our State's worst fire disaster since the 1960s tore through the Blue Mountains, Hawkesbury, Hunter, Central Coast and Southern Highlands. Two people were killed and 248 houses were destroyed. The civilian stories from that time are harrowing. One example is Sergio Rosato, the principal of St Thomas Aquinas Primary School in Winmalee. He led 500 children to safety whilst surrounded by fire. He and several teachers walked with students to the White Cross shops to stay out of harm's way. During the emergency Mr Rosato's home was burned to the ground and even to this day the students of St Thomas Aquinas are affected by memories of the fire. I also think about St Columba's High School in Springwood, where hundreds of students sheltered, including two of my nephews, whilst the RFS fire crews on more than a dozen trucks fought back the flames. Outbuildings had already been lost.

Similar stories are repeated time and time again. Another example is Phil and Sue Dunlop, retirees who stood by their home as it was surrounded by fire. As they watched the fire approach, burning away scrubland around the home, they did all they could with buckets and hoses trying to keep it at bay. Despite their best efforts, the fire raged on. After the windows in their home finally blew out due to the heat and a nearby car exploded, they were evacuated and are lucky to be alive today.

We are well aware that bushfires have the potential to do far greater damage, claim more lives and destroy far more homes than was the case in October 2013. Every year there are potential fire disasters that are averted due to the fantastic work of the RFS and Fire and Rescue NSW. Only recently in Eastern Creek, within the electorate of Prospect, a fire broke out only metres from the M4 highway. This fire required 200 firefighters to quell it. Had it not been for the hazardous materials [HAZMAT] and rescue work of the RFS and Fire and Rescue NSW, I have no doubt there could have been a much worse disaster. This House has the responsibility to legislate the necessary means to prevent bushfires impacting on the people of New South Wales. The New South Wales Government must continue to provide the best resources available to the RFS and to encourage as much recruitment as possible.

I am a volunteer at the Horsley Park RFS and I encourage everyone to consider joining their local brigade. I acknowledge the members of the Horsley Park and Eastern Creek RFS brigades, within the seat of Prospect. They do so much for local communities. The work of an RFS volunteer is rewarding and they receive the best training available to volunteer firefighters anywhere in the world. Besides fighting fires, the RFS is involved in helping people affected by storm damage, search and rescue, motor vehicle accidents and community education programs. All of these activities are vital for the safety of New South Wales, and many are conducted by regular volunteers who have busy day jobs and young families. I call on the House to commend the RFS and Fire and Rescue NSW and acknowledge the Opposition's support for the bill.

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