Doorstop - Heathcote Fire Response Centre, NSW

15 Apr 2018
Prime Minister
Fire response; Syria; Commonwealth Games


Good afternoon. I’m joined by Mark Speakman, New South Wales Attorney General and Acting Emergency Services Minister, my federal colleague Craig Kelly, the Member for Hughes and Lee Evans, Member for Heathcote and Melanie Gibbons, Member for Holsworthy. Of course Shane Fitzsimmons the Commissioner for the Rural Fire Service, Paul Baxter, Commissioner for Fire and Rescue New South Wales and Paul Norton, the incident controller.

We've just been getting a briefing on the fire, and Shane is going to give us an update on the latest developments.

Clearly, with the wind increasing in strength, the situation is worsening. But there is an outstanding effort to control this fire being undertaken.

I just want to say on behalf of all Australians, how much we admire the firefighters and thank them for their extraordinary courage and professionalism in fighting this blaze. The fact that this huge blaze has been fought in very high temperatures and very high winds - unseasonal conditions - and has been done so in a way that has seen, to date, no injuries and no serious damage to property, this has been a great achievement. But it is going to be, as Shane will describe, a very, very tough afternoon and evening with these strong winds.

So, Shane, I'll ask you to describe the latest situation and then perhaps Mark, you may be able to talk about the perspective from the position of the New South Wales Government. I just want to say again, how much we appreciate the efforts of the Rural Fire Service and all the firefighters, volunteers and professional. Of course Paul was describing to us Shane, the very close cooperation with the ADF, with the Army particularly as so much of the blaze - Paul, as you were saying - has been running through the Holsworthy Base area and all of the particular challenges that that involves.

So, thank you for your advice and update there. Perhaps, Shane, do you want to give us an update on the fire?


Thank you Prime Minister. You will have noticed in the last half an hour or so, the fire has once again been elevated to an Emergency Warning Alert status.

That's because we are seeing the fire behave very aggressively. It's spreading out to the east and to the north. That's resulted in a number of emergency alerts being issued to different communities that are likely to be impacted by the fire or indeed are being impacted by the fire at the moment, are expected to be impacted by the fire throughout the afternoon.

The focus of the first round of messages were around the Sandy Point, Voyager Point and Pleasure Point areas, with the messages around ember attack and to shelter in place as the fire approaches. Work with the local firefighters on the ground and then of course, to the eastern side of the fire, we are also seeing it intensify in the northern area and in the southern area on that eastern flank. We've issued emergency alerts to the communities from Alfords Point through to Menai, and then down through to Barden Ridge, particularly on the western side of the Alfords Point Road.

Again, the fire is up and approaching those homes and those properties. Again, it's about ember attack and cautions around ember attack, but also to shelter in place as the fire approaches.

The overriding message here is; we still have a very volatile, dynamic, dangerous fire situation.

As the Prime Minister has indicated, we've got more than 500 men and women working on this fire, actively working on this fire right now. Firefighters from Fire & Rescue New South Wales and the Rural Fire Service are working shoulder to shoulder with their state police and emergency service colleagues and also the ADF, as the Prime Minister indicated, right throughout yesterday afternoon and, last night, and again today.

Whilst the damage hasn't been extremely limited and nothing too serious in terms of injury or property loss, we’ve got many hours this afternoon to go. With the amount of fire front, right up to and around properties, we hope it stays that way. We are working very hard to keep it that way but we just need to be mindful that we could see a deterioration in impact and in damage this afternoon, given the ferocity of these fires.


Well said Shane. Mark?


Thank you, Prime Minister. Look, you never know what is around the corner. People who were less than 24 hours ago, doing their shopping, going to Saturday morning sport, are now defending their homes.

Can I thank the New South Wales Fire and Rescue, the RFS for a tremendous job they have done over the last 24 hours. We have had over 500 firefighters out overnight and another 500 firefighters again today. This fire has spread incredibly quickly. It has taken people by surprise. Our fire services, our emergency services, have done a miraculous job making sure that no one’s property has been significantly damaged. No-one has been injured.

So I thank these heroes who put their lives at risk for everyone in our community, keeping ourselves and our property safe.


Thank you. Do we have any questions?


It’s the middle of autumn, how concerning is it that we’re seeing serious fire at this time of year?


Well clearly as we were just saying, it is unseasonably hot. That’s a matter, obviously, of great concern but we have to deal with the worst that Mother Nature can throw at us. The worse Australians are presented with, by nature, the better it brings out the Australian spirit; the selflessness, the courage, the professionalism and the mateship. That is what the firefighters are showing, the volunteers and the full time firefighters working together with the ADF and others and the community. Great solidarity, I want to thank them again for that terrific mateship, bringing out the very best in the Australian spirit when nature flings her worst at us.


Prime Minister how concerned are you by reports that this fire was deliberately lit?


Extremely concerned. Shane and I have spoken about this earlier with our colleagues and it’s a matter that is being investigated by the police, I don't think there is anything more that we can say about that. But we understand the fire began near Casula, not far from the power station. So, in a very settled area, a densely settled area, in fact. It came down through bushland and wound its way through Holsworthy to the situation where it is now.


With climate change, there’s obviously going to be a lot more of these unseasonal fires as you call them. What is the plan going forward? Are people not going to be able to live in the areas that they are living now?


As you know, dealing with climate change, the Government has a whole range of policies dealing with that. We are party to the Paris Agreement and so forth, we are bringing together climate policy and energy policy for the first time in the National Energy Guarantee.

But in terms of firefighting, again - Mark and the local members here understand this very well, Mark is the local member as well - this is a case where planning standards have improved, there has been greater awareness of the importance of asset protection zones. I think you were saying, Shane, the lessons from the 2002 fires and the fires in 1994 have been well-learned. We have to keep on, as we are presented with one natural disaster after another, to keep on learning from that and making sure that we are better able to protect property and life next time it happens. Because our climate has always delivered extremes, whether it is floods or fires or droughts, we are, as the poet wrote, the land of droughts and flooding rains, and fires as well.


If there is damage to homes or properties, what will the Government do to help in terms of recovery?


Well, there is a whole natural disaster reconstruction arrangement between the state and federal government, but I think it is too early to speculate about that in the context of this fire, especially as Shane says, there has been no serious damage to property.

If there are no further, any other questions about the fire, I do want to make some remarks on a couple of other topics.


[Inaudible] how are they working together? [Inaudible].


Look, I think as we said in weeks previously, don’t believe everything you read or hear. The agencies have worked shoulder to shoulder. The ability to have firefighters from both organisations working shoulder to shoulder right from the outset, whether it’s the men and women on the frontline or the men and women in the Incident Management Teams, it’s what they do day in, day out. We've seen that again, not just on display in Tathra a few weeks ago, but we've seen it in spades, on display in the last 24 hours since this fire started about 2.30 yesterday afternoon.

So too, working in concert with their police and emergency service colleagues and the non-government agencies to bring about the best, most effective coordinated response that we can.

Echoing the Prime Minister's comments, I would also applaud a very responsive, a very decisive community in being prepared and responding to the warnings and the alerts and the advice of firefighters and emergency service workers, working together in those streets for the last 24 hours.


The areas burning right now? Has that been, have there been hazard-reduction burns been going there? What’s the, sort of, background story in this particular -


Yeah there is. Particularly throughout the Sutherland area there is a number of things I would point out. As the Prime Minister indicated, Sutherland Council for many decades led an initiative locally about planning and development with good consideration about bushfire risk. So even before some of the legislative arrangements that came into place in the early 2000s, in the decades passed, there was a lot of work around asset protection zones and design and construction standards, which helped improve the survivability of property. But also, there’s a very active hazard reduction and fuel management program right throughout the Sutherland area, even in the Alfords Point area where we’re quite concerned with the impact of fire at the moment, a large area to the west of Alfords Point - I think it’s Mill Creek just to the west of Alfords Point between Mill Creek and right up to the back of Alfords Point - has been the subject of good hazard reduction burning, only 18 months or two years ago.

But as we always say, it’s called hazard reduction burning, hazard reduction activity for a reason; it reduces the hazard but doesn't eliminate the hazard. 

Under these dry, windy, volatile conditions, fire still carries through, albeit at some reduced intensity. So from what I have seen, there has been some pretty good work in and around the western areas of these at-risk communities right now.


Can you give us some more detail about the conditions today and how that’s affecting the fire and also how they’re forecast to change or continue?


Yesterday we saw really strong winds, 70, 80, 90km/h right across different areas. Then overnight we saw a very strong southerly change around about 3.30 this morning. That presented very volatile and very dangerous conditions right throughout the afternoon. But also as the southerly change came in, fire flanks turned into fire fronts and fire starts burning in all sorts of directions. Firefighters are very vulnerable but also the communities in the path are very vulnerable.

Today while we’re still seeing strong winds, 50 or 60km/h, we are seeing a slightly lower temperature and we’re seeing some increased humidity. So there is a moderation in the conditions but given the moisture deficit in the landscape, given the absence of rain for weeks and months now, any meaningful rain, wind conditions of yesterday, the very unseasonal heat that the Prime Minister was talking about earlier for the last couple of weeks into April, has really sapped the moisture out of the vegetation. That’s making it highly susceptible to ignition and the rapid spread fire when you’ve these really strong winds.

The strong winds today are going to be very problematic and they’re not expected to ease until well and truly late into the evening tonight. We’re still expecting some winds around tomorrow, albeit not the sort of strength we are getting today.

So we’re not expecting yesterday's conditions to prevail the balance of the week but it’s still going to be a tough week for firefighters, because unfortunately what we really need is some meaningful rain right across this fire ground and right across other parts of New South Wales.


There were some back-burning operations taking place around Sandy Point and down near Picnic Point this morning, how crucial were they in trying to tackle the fire front?


All those sorts of strategies and tactics that are being deployed over the last 24 hours - whether it is standing between the fire front and people 's homes or whether it’s implementing some of those tactical and strategic back burns we saw this morning, whether it’s up around Sandy Point or along the Heathcote Road, they’re all designed to limit the spread of the fire, get under control, the spread of the fire and try to gain some control over the spread of the fire and manage the intensity of it.

That work that you were seeing this morning was really critical to this operation. As is the work that is going on right across the length and breadth of the fire ground.


OK, thank you very much. I just want to speak about, briefly about two other matters.

As you know, the Australian Government has strongly supported of the targeted, proportionate and responsible action by the United States, France and the United Kingdom in targeting three chemical weapons sites in Syria yesterday.

The use of chemical weapons is a crime. It cannot be tolerated. We call on Russia, which is the sponsor of Syria, to use its influence to ensure that this most recent chemical weapons attack, this most recent atrocity by the Assad government in Douma - where we believe the casualties are now up to 75 people killed - this shocking crime is thoroughly investigated.

Russia has used its position as a member of the United Nations Security Council to veto resolutions designed to ensure that this chemical weapons crime is thoroughly investigated and cannot be repeated.

It’s time that Russia played a responsible role. It has all of the influence and authority over the Syrian government that it needs to ensure that these crimes are not committed.


Are you committing resources to future strikes or action against Syria?


There were no Australian assets involved in this attack. As it happens, at the present time our Air Force assets are not available in the Middle East. But obviously we work very closely with our partners and our allies. We are committed to the global resolution to stop the criminal use, this shocking use, of chemical weapons, and indeed whether it is in Syria or on a park bench in Salisbury in the United Kingdom. On that point, I was discussing the shocking conduct of the Syrian Government and the response to it by the UK, France and the United States, with Prime Minister Theresa May last night. As we have discussed the use of a nerve agent by agents of Russia or by Russia directly in Salisbury and of course there, we made a coordinated response of expelling Russian diplomats. We showed great solidarity as a global community to absolutely say no, that there will be no tolerance of this type of criminal activity.


Prime Minister how concerned are you about Russian retaliation, particularly in spots around Europe?


Russia needs to act responsibly. The Syrian regime is utterly dependent on Russia for its security, for its very existence. The fact is that chemical weapons have now been used on several occasions in very recent times.

Strong action has been taken by the United States with its two allies, France and the UK on this occasion, in response. But the fact is, Russia should not have allowed it to happen.

Russia is a member of the United Nations Security Council and it claims to be against the use of chemical weapons. It should stop all the denial and the pretence that it wasn't an action by the Syrian government and ensure that the chemical weapons are destroyed, that the ability of the regime to use chemical weapons is eliminated and that this type of criminal conduct does not occur again.


Are you expecting any request from the US to contribute more to the coalition and are you open to sending Australian fighter jets to the Middle East?


Well we have, we’ve just brought back our Super Hornets from the Middle East. Our role in that part of Middle East operations - and it is quite extensive - has been to defend Iraq and eliminate the threat to Iraq, from ISIL or Daesh.

That work continues, but obviously enormous progress has been made. ISIL has lost 90 percent of its territory. But we remain there providing, among other things, very important training to the Iraqi Defence forces and indeed their police as well.

So we have a continued commitment and we’re obviously talking to our ally, the United States, constantly. Marise Payne, the Defence Minister was speaking with Jim Mattis yesterday. It is a very close, constant engagement that we have with them.

Can I just make one other, just changing topic to something more cheerful.

Congratulations to all the Australian athletes on the great, extraordinary success in the Commonwealth Games. Not yet over of course, but we have just seen some phenomenal victories. Kurt Fearnley’s win is an inspiration, as indeed Kurt is to all of us. What a generous, determined, brave, humble man he is. He is a real inspiration.

But so has the whole team been, in every area, whether it is on the track or in the pool, every aspect of competition, Australians have excelled.

But what has been so remarkable about the Commonwealth Games, and I just want to pay my compliments and thanks to everyone involved with it - these have been called “the friendly Games”.

I don't think there could ever have been a friendlier Commonwealth Games than what we’ve seen, in large measure because of the 15,000 volunteers that have made it possible. It has been an extraordinary sign of hospitality and generosity on the part of the people of the Gold Coast and south-east Queensland and of course others who have come from other parts of Australia as well, to play their part.

Absolutely stellar performances by our athletes, so congratulations. There are still some medals to win. So we are wishing everyone all the best to increase, yet again, on that medal tally.

It may have improved since we have been having this press conference, but so far 194 medals, 78 gold. It’s a really outstanding performance.

Congratulations and thank you to everyone who has made these Commonwealth Games possible.

Thank you very much.