Transcript of Joint Press Conference
THU 17 JANUARY 2013
Subject(s): Coonabarabran bushfires; Disaster Recovery Payments; Conditions update from RFS
PM: I have had the opportunity today to meet, to discuss what has happened here but most importantly of all, to see it for myself. And the overwhelming impression I am left with is of the destructive power of this fire; incredibly destructive.
There are parts of the landscape that now look like moonscape. This fire has burnt so hot.
And even people who have been fighting fires for years and years said in many parts there was nothing that could be done to stop this fire when it was at its greatest intensity.
So an incredibly destructive fire that's done a lot of damage.
With that awesome power in the fire, it is incredible that no lives have been lost. And that is an incredible tribute to everybody who has bravely fought these fires.
To the firefighters, to the police, to the volunteers, to the council workers, to everybody who has been involved, they have done an amazing thing.
With a fire that is rightly being described as the perfect storm of fires, for us to be here counting the cost in property damage is bad enough. But we are not counting the cost in lives and that is a tremendous achievement.
I have had the opportunity to see the way this community is pulling together. To meet people who are working so hard on behalf of their community, from weary firefighters who are still out doing it, through to Tilly, a five-year-old girl who has been handing out ice blocks to firefighters when they come in for some relief.
So to everybody in the community who has pulled together with such great spirit, thank you for what you are doing and continuing to do to deal with this fire situation.
I have been up to the observatory and I’ve met the employees there who protected the observatory and ultimately had to flee as the fire came up what is inevitably a very steeply-sided hill because it is the right place for the observatory.
They wanted to tell me about how they could report to me as Prime Minister that they had protected a federal government asset, that they had protected the telescopes and the principle observatory.
I’m glad I had the opportunity to say to them the principle federal government asset isn’t the building, it’s them, and they are all safe having shown such bravery and I thank them for it.
And I thank them for everything that they will do in the weeks to come to get what is an important scientific asset and a great tourist attraction back up and operational.
I have had the opportunity to meet with Bob and Janet, their story is well-known I think. They lost their own home as Bob was fighting the fires.
He said he fought his first fire when he was 14. I think maybe some wagging of school was involved to go out and do it. But he's a man who knows a fair bit about fire and said when it took his home; there was just no stopping it. That it was burning grass that had water running across it; such was the intensity of the fire.
To Bob and Janet and to everybody else who has lost their homes, we are thinking of you and I am overwhelmed by the bravery and stoicism that people are showing in such difficult circumstances.
I want to make two announcements and then I’m going to ask Shane to make some comments on the fire situation because we are expecting weather to become more adverse tomorrow.
We have already, working with our State Government colleagues, triggered some natural disaster relief and recovery payments. These are payments that help people through personal hardship, people who have lost their homes.
These are payments that too help people like primary producers who have suffered losses, and the loss of stock and people needing to put down animals has been a very big pressure on people. And those arrangements too can also help businesses affected by fire.
Today, on top of what has already been activated, I want to announce that we are activating for these communities, for the local council regions in this area, the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment.
This is an emergency payment that gets $1,000 to adults and $400 for people with kids for the kids, for people who have lost their homes, for people who have been evacuated, for people who really aren't sure what they're going to do next but have got immediate needs.
People can access this payment by ringing 180 22 66. They can get on the Human Service website, or for people here directly in this community, we have got Centrelink workers in the recovery centre at the bowling club. They can go there.
So that payment has been triggered for three local government areas, for Coonamble, Gilgandra and the Warrumbungle local government areas. If you are in those areas and you have been really hard hit by fire, please check out your eligibility. There is some money and some assistance available for you.
Even as we talk about people starting to move into recovery from everything that they have lost, fire is being fought, containment lines are being reinforced and I will turn now to the Commissioner for some comments on that.
SHANE FITZSIMMONS, RFS COMMISSIONER: Thank you Prime Minister. We still have across New South Wales some 84 fires that we're dealing with. Fourteen of those fires remain uncontained.
So clearly, like we are seeing right across the fire here in Coonabarabran, the efforts of the firefighters go unrelenting. They are all about seeking to contain as much of the fire as they can and consolidate those containment lines ahead of more deteriorating weather forecast for tomorrow.
We are expecting, indeed as we have seen here while we’re standing here, more fire trucks have been responded out to provide protection to properties that are coming under threat with flare-up in the north-eastern area of this fire today and the north-eastern edge. The south-western corner remains a point of focus, particularly in light of the weather conditions tomorrow where we are expecting temperatures to return into the high 30s.
We are expecting to see those nor-westerly winds come through in the order of 20-30km/h, gusting even more. So those already incomplete and indeed tenuous containment lines will be tested again tomorrow.
But we’ve got the fire fighting effort, we’ve got the community coming together, we’ve got those trigger points. We will be able to work with the community and advise them of any impending risk under those circumstances.
But much further afield, the worse weather across New South Wales is forecast at this stage to be right across our more southern areas where we still have those large fires burning yet to be contained in places like the Shoalhaven, the Cooma region and the Yass areas.
Lots of work still going on to consolidate those containment lines. But we will be expecting, once we get a briefing this afternoon, probably to see total fire bans in effect right across southern regions of New South Wales, possibly extending from the Hunter region down the coast through greater Sydney and the south coast and then right out to our central regions and our Riverina areas down to the Murray River.
Through those parts we are expecting to see temperatures in the low to mid-40s. We are going to see that north-westerly wind pattern dominate very much across most of New South Wales.
That is where it will be its strongest. We are talking 40-50km/h gusting 60-70km/h and even 80km/h across the ranges, so some tough times ahead for firefighters and communities living in those areas.
And that’s all in light of obviously the fires we know about. We will have firefighters and other key resources on standby to deal with any new outbreaks of fire under those sorts of conditions.
We have revised the figures here today as you know. We are talking about 49 homes being confirmed as being destroyed across this fire ground here in Coonabarabran. And more work continues as we speak to identify other homes that may be damaged or destroyed.
So there is still a lot of work to go yet, but we have seen people return to their homes, particularly on Timor Road to start assessing their damage.
A long way to go, people need to remain alert. They need to remain across the conditions locally and monitor the website, listen to local radio, watch TV and be ready to act on your local plan.
PM: Can I just conclude by saying thank you to everybody who has helped me get around today.
Peter as we have gone around has told me that they have set up a local fund here for people to make contributions to and that it is already at $59,000 in donations from community members, which is a fantastic result.
I am in a position to announce that donations to that fund and any like funds in this local area will be tax deductible for people. So that’s our way of giving a bit of support to a local fund raising effort.
Thank you to the local community for everything they’re doing, including pitching in to that fund.
I am happy to take some questions on this.
JOURNALIST: Just on the disaster fund, is there a website or a number that you can donate to?
CR PETER SHINTON, WARRUMBUNGLE SHIRE MAYOR: It is on the council website, yes.
JOURNALIST: I have a question for the commissioner. Commissioner, a volunteer RFS firefighter and a retained fire rescue firefighter are charged today down here making hoax phone calls to Triple 0. How concerned are you by this?
FITZSIMMONS: That is something that can't be tolerated. We don't tolerate it, we won't tolerate it.
We have been working with the police on that matter. He has been charged. Hopefully he gets the appropriate weight of the law thrown against him and we have already moved to take action pertaining to his membership once we see the outcome of that charge.
JOURNALIST: Are you happy with the measures in place when someone joins up, you know who you’re getting?
FITZSIMMONS: Yes. We have a very good program where new members seeking to join the organisation are the subject of probity checks, criminal history checks and of course they are on six months’ probation, and importantly their local brigade runs assessments.
Their senior management team runs assessments, and it is not until after a period of probation, a clearance on those background checks that anyone is even considered to be entitled to full membership.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, are you going to Cooma today?
PM: I won’t be in Cooma today, no. But I have had the opportunity to have a good look here and I’ll have a chat with a few more people.
JOURNALIST: The last couple of weeks, going to Dunalley, coming here Prime Minister, a country that continues to burn, what you see, how does it affect you?
PM: I have had the opportunity to be in Tasmania and to be here and the destructive power unleashed by fire always startles you.
Even when you're prepared for it you know from the images that you guys bring to our television screens, and thank you for doing such a good job keeping people informed.
But you know from those images it’s bad but there is nothing like seeing it for yourself, smelling it, seeing the smoke, seeing the destruction and seeing the heartache that comes with it.
And I feel that it’s very important for me to be out and about just saying to people we understand that this is an incredibly difficult time for you, the whole nation is thinking of you and we are going to try and do what we can to help.
So I hope that in coming along, I can provide a little bit of reassurance to people that they’re not being forgotten. That people right around the nation are focused on their struggle, even many days into a fire event like we are many days into this one.
It is a remarkable nation we live in when I can chart the course of my summers by the disaster events I have been to.
As Prime Minister I can chart the course of my summers as to whether I have been in Queensland looking at huge floods, whether I have been up north looking at the effects of a cyclone, whether I have been here talking to people who are trying to get filth out of their shops because of flooding, here in this local electorate.
Or whether it has been this, going to fire grounds and seeing the destruction that has happened and the loss of property.
What is amazing, I think, is the way in which people come together and I think we always learn something from past events.
And the fact we have the warning systems now and all of that, things that we learnt from Victoria, means that we are getting better and better at keeping people safe. That’s a tremendous thing.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, we keep talking to people and we keep hearing the same story that they didn't have any insurance. Will these kind of payments be enough? What can they cover?
PM: Well there are these payments available but if you are asking me what advice I would give people having seen-
JOURNALIST: Do you think they're enough?
PM: The relief that we give is not there to substitute for insurance. We help people out; we want to help people out.
But we do also want people to get the message that in a country as unpredictable as the one we live in, when you never know whether it is going to be fire or flood or something else that hits your home, that it’s prudent to be insured. People should be insured.
Now I know that is really tough for a lot of people because they are on low and fixed incomes and some people live in places where insurance won't be offered because of the risk factors.
So we do take that into account, but I just don't want people to get the impression that what we do is a substitute for having thought about insuring your home.
And we actually had a chat as we moved around about insurance companies will be on the ground taking claims in the way in which I saw them in Tasmania on the ground taking claims.
JOURNALIST: You mentioned that the funding was going to help people whose houses were destroyed but what about people who have lost stock?
PM: Already what has been triggered under the natural disaster payments that we have and we work with the State Government on, already there has been triggering of payments that help primary producers and help small businesses.
So I would say to people please be ringing the telephone line, talking to Centrelink staff in recovery centres, getting on the website to work through the different eligibility.
There is a range of payments because they are trying to help people in different circumstances. But the payment I have announced today is first instance money to get people through when they are out of their home and can't go back to their home and consequently there are all sorts of stresses and strains.
For some people they won't have their banking details and banking records and all the rest of it because of what they have lost.
JOURNALIST: Commissioner, in terms of your focus tomorrow is it more down south and less sort of in this area?
FITZSIMMONS: No. What you have got to do is focus on active fire grounds and the enormity of this fire ground, clearly is going to require a deal of focus again tomorrow.
But also we are mindful that the forecast weather conditions are going to be at their most severe elsewhere. That is that large southern area, south-eastern area of NSW where we're expecting to see some fairly widespread severe to catastrophic fire danger ratings in the forecast at this stage.
So clearly as we do routinely, it is about ensuring that the resources are deployed and are on standby where they are likely to be needed most.
And tomorrow we will see resources continue to be engaged, firefighters, aircraft and heavy plant and all the other machinery that needs to be there to support the fire fighting effort will continue to be here.
Yes, they are working very hard to secure this fire ground, but there’s still a bad weather day ahead tomorrow.
But elsewhere it’s about a) looking at those known fires and continuing to work in anticipation of the potential outbreak and the impact that might have on communities in the fire path.
But it’s also about having firefighters, incident control teams and indeed assets like aircraft and other things strategically located on standby so that they can deal with any new outbreak of fire that might occur tomorrow.
As I indicated earlier, we are expecting to see total fire bans across a fair geographic area of the state tomorrow. But that will largely be in the southern areas where the weather is forecast to be the worst.
JOURNALIST: Can we just get you on one other-
PM: I’m only dealing with these matters today.
Thanks very much.