Transcript of Joint Press Conference
MON 07 JANUARY 2013
Subject(s): Tasmanian bushfires
PM: Thank you. Thank you very much to the Premier. It is good to be here with representatives of the Federal Labor team.
I've come to Tasmania today for one purpose and that's to say to the people of Tasmania that the nation is standing with them at this very, very difficult time. We'll be standing with them in every way.
Indeed, I've already met today Victorians and people from New South Wales who have come to work in support of their friends in Tasmania as Tasmania continues to fight these fires and then moves into the recovery phase from this fire crisis.
I've met Victorians here today who were assisted by Tasmanians when Victoria faced the 2009 devastating bushfires. They feel like they're returning a favour.
I think they're showing great Australian mateship at what is an incredibly difficult time.
For many they're still worried about family and friends and still seeking to be reassured that their family and friends are okay. It is a very anxious time.
For a number of people, they know their home has been destroyed but as yet, for safety reasons, they haven't been able to return to their home to see the damage themselves.
So a really stressing position to be in, knowing that you've lost so much, but not being able to see it for yourself.
And for many, they've been displaced and moved around.
People who wanted to do something as simple as go on a family holiday have had to confront the forces of nature at work.
To all of those people I do want to say we're thinking of you in these moments of grief and despair and we will be working with you in the days to come.
At a practical level The Federal Government is working with the State Government and with the Tasmanian Fire Service here and police and local authorities.
We're working through our Australian Defence Force that has provided some assistance.
We're working through assisting with practical things like managing telephone call loads and helping with the overflow with as people ring in in their hundreds to get information about family and friends.
We're helping too, by triggering some important emergency payments that help people when they are in these dark days.
We're working with the Tasmanian Government on that and we have also triggered that for a number of areas; the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment to give people some immediate assistance to help them through.
And we will be assessing the damage and what needs to be done to help communities rebuild.
I do want to echo some of the words of the Premier here in Tasmania.
Fires are still being fought, and it is very important that people stay alert to continuing information from local authorities about what they need to do to stay safe.
And that message also continues to be true around the nation.
And I do want to say some particular words about forthcoming circumstances in New South Wales.
We know that New South Wales is about to move into an extreme heat period.
That does mean there about will be fire warnings in parts of New South Wales, that fire risk is extreme, indeed in parts of NSW fire risk levels could be moved to catastrophic.
In those circumstances, people in New South Wales need to do what so many in Tasmania have been doing over the past few days, which is staying alert, listening to local authority warnings, thinking about what they would do, their bushfire plan, activating their bushfire plan.
This is the time to be vigilant and I do want to particularly want to pass that message to the people of New South Wales as the temperature gauge starts to rise.
I will with the Premier and others be here talking to people who have been affected in Tasmania and it's been great to be able to get such a comprehensive briefing from the Tasmanian Fire Service and from local police.
And I do very much thank them for that and I want to thank everybody who has been out there helping, whether they're police, firefighters, SES, volunteers, so many people who have done so much to be helping their fellow citizen, their fellow Australian, at this time.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, there's a lot of people without food and water. Do you think the response to this bushfire has been good enough?
PM: Well, we've just taken a briefing about the movement of food, water and other resources to assist people, so you've got very specific questions about where those resources are available, then I'm standing here with some very great experts who will be able to give you specific answers to that.
I think the Tasmanian Fire Service and Tasmanian police and indeed all of the agencies and authorities have been doing everything they can in what are incredibly difficult circumstances to support people through.
So this is a time where we've got to be pulling together and making the best of what inevitably are very difficult days, but this immediate crisis has been worked on very professionally and hard by the people you see standing behind me and so many others that they represent.
JOURNALIST: What is your message to the farmers and the primary producers so severely affected?
PM: I'm happy to take that question. I think the Premier wanted to say something though.
PREMIER GIDDINGS: We're still in dangerous circumstances as well which has been part of the problem of being able to get resources down to the Tasman Peninsula.
My understanding is a convoy has been successful in taking resources down to the people on the Tasman Peninsula who have been isolated.
But there is fire activity still right up to the roadside and we will not put other people in danger.
But we of course have also been providing resources with ferry services that have helped to ensure that people have been able to get off the Tasman Peninsula in safe circumstances as well, so I too would join with the PM in commending the work of everybody who has helped to either fight the fires or support those in community refuges.
And there are so many Tasmanians who are involved and it really is showing just how strong the community spirit is with the support that's been provided.
PM: Yes, there's been property damage and loss, we're not in a position yet where that can be mapped in every detail but of course we know people have sustained property damage and loss.
We do work with people who have sustained economic damage to help them get back on their feet.
We'll see this unfold over coming days, fires are still being fought and those fires have to be dealt with.
People's immediate needs for shelter and food and water and access to fuel and electricity have to be met and work is happening on that.
Of course, we're still working through where everybody is and whether everybody is safe and then in coming days increasingly the recovery work starts but this is still an ongoing and unfolding situation.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, how concerned are you by reports that rental car companies are likely to charge customers who can't get their cars back, they're stuck in limbo as such?
PM: I'm not going to may any assumptions about how companies are going to react in these circumstances.
I think everybody would realise that if you get trapped by a fire and can't get your car out then that's not fault of yours.
I'm sure everybody would imagine what it's like to be on holiday with a rental car and then to have to scramble around and start worrying about fire and what you're going to do next.
So I think at a human level we would all understand that.
I'm not going to may any assumptions about how companies will respond.
Companies will make their own statements but of course I think everybody would understand that there are people trapped in this who didn't choose to be, that's just the circumstance they're in.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you’re hoping to visit some of the worst affected areas later on today. There are many locals haven't been able to get back to their homes to see what state they’re in, they're very desperate to do that.
Can you understand their frustration that the Prime Minister who has no direct assets involved can go and visit those areas but they can't?
PM: I will be doing exactly what I would ask everybody else to do, which is abiding by the instructions and requests of the fire service and the police.
I won't do anything personally that the fire service and police say shouldn't be done, of course I wouldn't do that.
I understand the frustration of people who want to get back and see what's happened to their homes but the thing that would be worse than not seeing your home would be to try and go and see it and get hurt doing so.
We don't want anybody to sustain an injury trying to get back and looking at their homes, so safety of human beings always has to be the thing that we put first.
So I can understand that kind of really pressing personal frustration but I'd also ask people to understand there's actually nothing more important than their safety and their health and their welfare and that's what the emergency services personnel are putting first.
JOURNALIST: At this point, despite it being a catastrophic fire it's been fatality free, what would be your message nationally about the way that this crisis was handled in Tasmania that perhaps is a lesson for the rest of the country?
PM: I think we have to take this a step at the time.
Inquiries are still being made and there are anxious relatives and friends who are still working through to make sure that their loved one is safe.
So let's have all of that process worked through so we can actually reliably assess what has happened over the past few days.
What I would say more generally is our nation has learned and we continue to learn more, about how best to address bushfires.
We learned things from the ACT fire, we certainly learned from what happened in Victoria.
These are extreme events, we do get better and better management systems as a result, but we live in a country that is hot and dry and where we sustain very destructive fires periodically so there's always going to be risk.
Whilst you would not put any one event down to climate change, weather doesn't work like that, but we do know over time that as a result of climate change we are going to see more extreme weather events and conditions.
So we live with this risk and we need to have the best systems to manage it and I'm satisfied that our emergency services right around the nation share information, share lessons learned, so that they can improve for the next time.
To give just one example of that, that has happened here, in this crisis, out of what happened in Victoria a lot of work has been done on using mobile phones to get messages to people.
That's been done very systematically here so that people could get information on their mobile phone; that's a great example of how you can learn and improve and the technology can take you to a different way of communicating with people.
Twitter and social media and all the rest would have been one way in which people got their information about these fires, as well as the traditional sources like putting on your radio.
PM: I don't think I'm the best person to handle that. I think maybe our police might want to say a few things about that so this is a question about an update on people missing, numbers of people missing.
TASMANIA POLICE SPOKESMAN: There's been the national registration inquiry system operating now for the last couple of days.
The Australian Red Cross are responsible for that and we're working very closely with them.
There's obviously a lot of people making requests for information, they’re concerned about relatives and friends who were down in the area at the time or may have been, and those requests are coming in not just from around the country but from overseas in some instances as well.
So up until this morning we still had about 500 inquiries that we were working through.
Part of that process involves cross checking to see whether several inquiries have been made about the same person, also cross referencing that with records that have been maintained at the community refuge centres and people are coming and going from those periodically.
So it's quite a complex process to identify exactly who is unaccounted for and who isn't and that's why we're encouraging people, even if they're previously registered at a community refuge centre, to also again reregister with the national registration system so that we can be certain that they're okay.
TASMANIA POLICE SPOKESMAN: About 500 inquiries still need to be confirmed that people have definitely been accounted for.
There's a significantly lower number of people that we do have more serious concerns about.
Yesterday, it was around about 100 people; now that's not to say that there's 100 people that may have come to harm, it's just to say that we really need to focus on those people as a priority, particularly as we work through the process that we’re doing at the moment of going around all of the properties that have been destroyed or damaged by fire.
We’ve got our teams working on that, there was 11 teams down there yesterday, the teams are back in there today doing that work, but it is, I'm sure some people would see it as a slow process, but it's a necessary process to work through.
And until we've had the opportunity to do all the screening that we need to do at each of those premises, we can't say for certain that there hasn't been a human life or more than one human life lost as a result of these fires.
So there will be a period of time to come yet before we're in a position to say that no-one has died as a result of these fires unfortunately.
JOURNALIST: How far into that process are you and has it been a negative response so far?
TASMANIA POLICE SPOKESMAN: It's been negative in terms of not identifying that anybody has died but the process itself started on Friday afternoon, early evening, as soon as it was safe to fly our initial team into Dunalley, and it's continued since then and been ramping up since that time.
The teams that we’ve got working on this at the moment are joint agency teams with New South Wales fire assistance, police, SES, Tasmania fire and assistance and assistance from Defence Force reservists as well and they're working through the process as quickly as they possibly can but it does need to be done thoroughly and it needs to be done safely from their perspective as well.
JOURNALIST: In terms of the Arthur Highway, you mentioned you were going to try to convoy people out from the peninsula, have you been able to do that or are you able do that today?
TASMANIA POLICE SPOKESMAN: We’re hoping that we will be able to do that today.
We've been trying to do that now for the last couple of days as most people would be aware.
We've been able to, under escort, have some emergency service vehicles going in at various times over the last couple of days and that's been important not only to ensure that we've got the resources that we need on the Tasman Peninsula but also taking in some of those urgent supplies that people do need.
We've also had supplies going in on the vessels that have been taking people out to maximise the usage that we're getting out of those vessels and coordinates that with all of the agencies that need to get resources down there, so depending on the conditions today, an assessment will be made as to whether or not when we do another escort in whether we can then also escort people coming off the peninsula.
We've been saying since this began that we will only do that when we can guarantee the safety of those involved.
JOURNALIST: We started off with thousands down there and there has been ferrying back and forwards. How many are still stranded?
TASMANIA POLICE SPOKESMAN: At the moment in terms of people that have wanted to come off the peninsula we're satisfied that the vast majority of those have had the opportunity to come off.
There were some on Friday evening, they were the high priority people that needed to come off, particularly people with medical conditions, some of the international tourists for example that had flights they needed to catch.
There was 1,000 people approximately on Saturday, another 400 came off last night, so there's been significant numbers of people that wanted to come off.
In fact all the people that we could identify that wanted to come off have come off.
Some people have elected to stay for various reasons and of course some are the local people who don't want to leave the peninsula anyway.
So at this particular point in time, the Nubeena Recovery Centre is servicing the needs of about 500 people.
That's not to say that there's 500 people actually camped at the centre. There's a much smaller number of people camped at the centre sleeping in cars and whatnot.
Most of those people are coming and going amongst the community, in some cases to their own properties down there.
Down at Port Arthur there's still about 200 to 250 people being looked after, and at Sorell a much smaller number that have been serviced through our facility.
So the numbers are significantly down on what they were but a number of people are still in the area and it's important that we support them as best we can.
JOURNALIST: What do you have to say about the cause of the Forcett fire?
TASMANIA POLICE SPOKESMAN: That's been the one that's been subject to the most investigation over the last few days.
What we are in a position to advise now is that that our investigations in conjunction with the Tasmania Fire Service lead to us believe that was an accidental fire.
There was a tree stump at a property at Forcett that had been burning for a week or two prior to the fire and prior to the fire bans being imposed.
It was thought that that had been completely extinguished but it now appears that there might have been a root system underground that was still burning that's worked its way to the surface and ignited the fire.
So that is an accidental lightage and in fact we have no indication that any of the fires that we've been dealing with have been deliberately lit.
JOURNALIST: (Inaudible) any charges as a result of those-
TASMANIA POLICE SPOKESMAN: It's too early to say that but the indications that I've been given at this stage is that it was accidental and we're approaching it on that basis.
JOURNALIST: Premier, have budget constraints affected the State's ability to handle the fires?
PREMIER GIDDINGS: No. Resources have been on foot as you would see, the Tasmanian Fire Service have been doing all that they should be doing on the ground with the SES, Tasmania police.
In fact I must say I was overseas and I would commend the SES, the Tasmanian Fire Service and the police-
PREMIER GIDDINGS: Just very quickly, I believe everything is happening as it ought to happen, of course in time we will review what we have been doing to ensure that if there's things we can do better that we learn.
But right at this point in time, we are still fighting fires, we are still working with families who need our help and all of that help is being provided.
PREMIER GIDDINGS: No. We're not at any stage of that or any need for that at the moment, but even as we're going through both police and the fire service are inquiring as to what is happening on the ground.
As you've heard just now, we already know where we believe the Forcett fire began so that level of inquiry is already happening to that extent and we will work through these issues. We'd better move.
PM: We'd better move.