The closing days of 2019 will be burnt into Victorians’ memories for all the wrong reasons.
At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, while many were popping champagne and enjoying the fireworks, a team of exhausted Country Fire Authority volunteers stood on the main roundabout in Mallacoota. They downed hoses and wished each other a Happy New Year, having just saved the central township and 4,500 residents and visitors from a bushfire inferno.
The story of Mallacoota and the unprecedented naval evacuation that followed has garnered international headlines. But it is just one of many small Victorian towns confronted by the most extensive bushfires in over eighty years.
More than six per cent of Victoria’s land mass has been burnt in a few short months. This wide-scale disaster has taken hundreds of homes, destroyed livelihoods, claimed helpless wildlife and stolen the lives of five Victorians. As the Chief Officer and CEO of CFA, these losses weigh heavily upon my shoulders.
I have visited East Gippsland and the north-east several times in the past few weeks. The smoke obscures the sun and the charred landscape is cast in an eerie orange glow. With the blue sky gone and the green forest blackened, it truly looks like hell on earth.
But from the dust of those barren fire grounds, the most remarkable Australian spirit has arisen.
I have been privileged to meet ordinary people who have lived through extraordinary times, and they have banded together and supported one another in a way that upholds a deeper Aussie tradition.
I have heard stories of people putting their own lives at risk to warn and help their neighbours evacuate. Stories of those who have lost their own homes opting to stay in their communities and continue helping others in need.
I have been so very proud of our own CFA members who have dropped everything to heed the call for help on the eastern fire fronts.
To see the Warrnambool tanker sitting proudly in the East Gippsland Swan Reach base camp, 600 kilometres from home, just shows the dedication of our people and their staunch commitment to serve and protect even communities that are so far from their own.
In the picturesque hamlet of Wairewa, I met the local CFA captain who went house to house the night the fire tore through, collecting residents and gathering them in the community hall. The CFA generator was set up to give them power and the fire truck stood guard out front, protecting all inside. While they lost nearly half the homes in their town, the actions of the Wairewa brigade unquestionably saved lives that night.
Cobungra in the north-east has a similar story to tell, where a single truck and a handful of volunteers defended the township from the alpine fire front. While several homes were lost, everyone survived and the damage could have been far worse.
The extraordinary generosity of Victorians has been such that relief centres were overwhelmed with donated goods. When the call went out to instead donate money, millions upon millions of dollars poured in to worthy causes supporting relief efforts, injured wildlife and our own CFA brigades.
My CFA members and I have also been incredibly touched by numerous messages of support and thanks from the community. But we are just one part of an incredible inter-agency response including Forest Fire Management Victoria, other emergency services, charities, councils, government departments and community groups that are all deserving of your praise and gratitude.
On behalf of that entire collective, I would like to extend our own thanks to the communities who have welcomed us, supported us and followed our directions.
This team effort has been running solidly for exactly two months today, since the East Gippsland fires started on 21 November. I wish I could say it’s nearly over but unfortunately we are not even halfway through our usual Victorian fire season.
We need our communities to stick with us, to remain vigilant and continue checking local conditions and warnings. We have been through a lot together but it’s not over yet.
Climate change is increasing the frequency, severity and timing of dangerous bushfire weather conditions. Our fire seasons are longer and events such as drought are combining with extreme heat to create the conditions we are now battling in the east of the state.
We used to focus on January to March as our highest-risk period, but we are now seeing significant fires taking off in November and sometimes continuing through to April. So there is potentially a way to go yet.
But as we creep towards Australia Day and its different meanings to many people, I reflect upon the ancient nature of this land, our proud Indigenous cultures and their own remarkable interactions with fire.
I think about what it is that brings Australians together when the going gets tough. At times like these it’s clear that a uniting spirit has been forged in flames which will burn on long after these fires are extinguished.