Doorstop Interview - Taree Evacuation Centre

10 Nov 2019
Taree, NSW
Prime Minister
Bushfire response; Bushfire support

THE HON. GLADYS BEREJIKLIAN, PREMIER OF NSW: I’m pleased to be here in Taree with the Prime Minister our colleagues, and of course Commissioner Fitzsimmons just to simply thank the amazing volunteers and all the workers from around the state who have got all hands on deck to support communities who are doing it really rough because of the horrific bushfires that we've witnessed. I want to personally thank everybody from within NSW, but also reinforcements from outside the state that have come in to support our communities. This evacuation centre is around 1 of 15 that's been stood up. This evacuation centre alone has had about 700 people come through here. And as you can all appreciate, as we can all appreciate, some people are coming here having lost everything or in a very traumatised state. What really struck me and hit me today is that even though some people know that their homes are okay, they're still extremely traumatised by what they've experienced, by what they've seen, by what their neighbours are going through. So just because someone's property is safe, doesn't mean they're ok. And we’re appealing to everybody to please watch out for your neighbours, please know there's help available. And today it's just struck me the number of services that are here that have set up and also the generosity from the community, both locally and also throughout the state. And it's very humbling as the Premier to be able to come here and say thank you to everybody, but also to hear stories of what people have gone through. And it's a good reminder of what we need to do to ensure that we support the communities, not just today and tomorrow, or this week or the next few weeks but weeks and months and in some instances a year or more until communities recover from what they've been through. We are still concerned about news reports, on Tuesday, and Commissioner Fitzsimmons will provide a greater detail. But certainly the advice we've had today is that weather conditions are looking very dire on Tuesday and we're bracing ourselves for potentially new areas, new fronts that currently don’t exist. But it’s a relief to know that conditions have eased, but it's only now that communities, that members and families are realising the state of their properties. The shock will start sinking in. And we need to make sure we're here to wrap around our services, but also just our moral support as people go through these difficult circumstances. PM?

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you. Thank you, Gladys. And can I thank you in particular as Premier of New South Wales for the tremendous effort that you've led here in response to these just devastating fires. And to you Commissioner, also and to all of the brave rural firefighters right across, not just here in New South Wales, but also up in Queensland and to all of the volunteers who have been coming in behind those volunteer firefighters, providing the support to the Sallies who are here, keeping people fed, to those who are supporting evacuation centres and not only just providing for people's basic needs, but providing great encouragement to people and putting their arm around them and showing that care and compassion. As the Premier said, as Gladys said, even where people's own properties have been saved. That does not mean that they have not gone through a tremendous trauma in recent times. I know many of them as Gladys and I've spoken to them here today are hopefully looking forward to getting back to their properties soon. But they are also telling me stories of incredible community where people have reached out, got people out of homes, made sure they've got to safety, looked after each other's livestock and animals, talking to each other, putting themselves in harm's way for each other. I've got to tell you, as a Prime Minister, I'm never more proud of Australians than in moments like this. They just show incredible spirit, incredible heart, incredible generosity. And that's what we're seeing on display, whether it's in this evacuation centre or the courage and the professionalism we saw up in Wauchope today with Cam and his amazing team up there coordinating the bushfire response right across the Mid Coast. As the Premier says, though, we're not out of this yet. There's still a long way to go. And Tuesday is looking a lot more difficult. And that's not only just true here in New South Wales. We know of the similar types of conditions we're seeing in Western Australia on Tuesday as well. So while we're seeing a very outstanding state effort here in New South Wales, there is a coordinated effort going across the country in the other places where there is danger. I also want to thank all the other states and territories for the way they've turned up here in New South Wales as I arrived here this morning. I was able to meet a whole crew out of Tasmania. It was only a year ago when I was down in Tassie and there were firefighters from New South Wales going down to help them. And here they are today as the Premier of Tasmania was reminding me this morning, back up here, helping their fellow Australians when they're fighting the same threats that they were in Tassie not that long ago. And I think that's just the great spirit of our fire services and our volunteers, that they do this. Now on an official matter we had commenced midday today the two arms of support. I mentioned them yesterday. And that's the $1000 dollars for eligible adults and $400 for eligible children, which is coming through the disaster recovery payment that is already being actioned and the other payment which has been extended and these are in the areas largely from the Queensland border down through here, Glen Innis Savern, Kempsey, Mid Coast, Nambucca, Port Macquarie-Hastings and the Walcha local government areas. We also have the disaster recovery allowance and that's the payment made to people for up to 13 weeks of income support where they have a loss of income. I also want to thank the employers for their understanding for those firefighters who are out there and ask them for their continued support of our firefighters. If they can't come to work tomorrow or the day after or the day after that, then I would ask you to continue to support them in that. I thank you for the way you've supported them. They'll have to be there running their businesses and they'll be doing it a little shorthanded. But they're putting their effort in by allowing those volunteers to do the work they're doing here in a centre like this or out on the fires or in the incident response management centre. So let me finish just by passing over to the commissioner to thank all of the ministers, all of the coordinators, all the firefighters, but particularly to you Gladys for the leadership you're showing with the government here to ensure that we've got a professional and targeted and very effective response, which I think is going to give people a lot of hope and confidence in the worst of times. Thank you, Commissioner.

SHANE FITZSIMMONS, COMMISSIONER OF THE NEW SOUTH WALES RURAL FIRE SERVICE: Right now, we continue to have more than 70 fires burning across New South Wales. More than half of them remain uncontained. We've got another 11 fires still burning at watch and act alert level. But even as we speak with the winds increasing, we are starting to see the fire behaviour increase and circumstances changing. So there's every likelihood, as we saw yesterday, as the afternoon rolls on, we're likely to see fires increasing to the emergency warning alert level and certainly the issuance of more messages and warnings out to impacted or affected communities. I would also like to echo the appreciation and the thanks that we've received from all the people here in this evacuation centre. An extraordinary time to be here. A range of emotions, of sadness and despair, but absolute appreciation and gratitude. And they wanted me to extend very publicly their sincere appreciation and gratitude to the firefighters on the front line, the emergency management workers, the incident controllers, every one doing their part to try and save them and save their community. Even people that have lost everything are just so grateful for what the effort has been achieving. Even though they've lost everything, they say they're still here and there's so many other neighbours around them that have been able to keep their home. We've got a long way to go yet as the as the Minister, the Premier and the Prime Minister have indicated, we are particularly concerned about the weather that's being forecast right across parts of New South Wales for Tuesday. The indications are the weather conditions will be worse than what we experienced right throughout northern New South Wales only a few days ago. Not only will they be worse, they'll be concentrated much further than just the north eastern area of New South Wales. We are expecting to see widespread, severe and extreme fire danger ratings extending from northern New South Wales, from the Queensland border right down to the central west areas of New South Wales, in and around the Greater Hunter region, down through the Greater Sydney environment, into the Illawarra and the Shoalhaven region. So we're talking a very widespread area of the state that is going to be confronted with some particularly difficult fire danger conditions. Accordingly, we've continued to ramp up our resources here in New South Wales. Not only do we have right now more than 1,300 people dealing with fires right across New South Wales. We've got plenty of crews from across the state and our colleagues from right across Australia and New Zealand helping us with incident management teams and helping us with men and women on the frontline fighting fires. We've had two large air tankers working on these fires. The machine that was purchased early on in the season by the New South Wales Government and a second one that we've been able to lease in the last month or so. We've also had a third one come online and active yesterday. So it will be available this week. We've also been speaking to our colleagues interstate and in particular Victoria, who are benefiting from some more mild conditions at the moment. And we are ramping up for probably another 50 trucks full of crews to be deployed into New South Wales on Monday night, ahead of conditions on Tuesday. And they'll be prepositioned and available to be deployed into either existing firefighting operations or new firefighting events that might occur over the coming days. We really need to identify that the risk is very real for Tuesday. We've seen the gravity of the situation unfold so profoundly up here on the on the north coast in the last week or so. You've seen the devastation, you've seen the damage, you've seen the destruction. What we can expect is those sorts of conditions to prevail across a much broader geographic area as we head into Tuesday. So we cannot reiterate enough, preparing now, having that bushfire survival plan, preparing your home, preparing your property, the conversation with your loved ones, the little things you do now could make all the difference to the survivability of you, your loved ones and your property if you're impacted by fire next week. And most importantly, make sure you stay attuned and alert to what's going on. Stay up to date, stay informed, listen to local radio, monitor the RFS website, have that smart phone application and be ready to act in accordance with that bushfire survival plan or any instructions or directions that you’re given by authorities.

PRIME MINISTER: Can I also thank the media for the way they've been getting a lot of information out, I think that's been very useful. So I want to thank the media for the work they've been doing on that as well.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister have you heard stories here of heartbreak and also resilience?

PRIME MINISTER: Yes, both, both. And, you know, people are under a lot of pressure when you're sitting in a centre like this where you're getting such great care and support and, you know, you're going to perhaps drive home later today and not know what you're going to find, then that really does set the anxiety levels running high. You've got young kids here. We've got elderly residents but the level of optimism despite the circumstances, is quite inspiring. And the way people are just getting around each other and it's not uncommon. I mean, the Premier and I have walked into many rooms like this in many different places, in many different circumstances. Floods, fires and all sorts of other circumstances. And we see the same thing every time, Australians supporting Australians.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, [inaudible] paint a very bleak picture of the coming days and you made the cabinet-level decision about potentially deploying army reservists, would it be better to deploy before the event rather than after? What are your thoughts on that?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that's not how it works. I'm not suggesting any changes. I mean, we were simply preparing for any requests that might come forward. And indeed, if that becomes necessary and there are further things that are required, then, of course, and meetings are taking place to that end. But what is important is that the level and resourcing of the delivery of the response by the New South Wales Government here is outstanding. And if they need anything more, I'm sure they would ask. And our support is simply there as a contingency. And the fact that it hasn't needed to be called upon, I think is a testament to the incredible coordinated support and resource that is coming through and through the effort that has been led by the Commissioner obviously at an operational level. But I've got to say, the support from the other state and territory Premiers and Chief Ministers, has been great. It's just like, what can we do? How many people can we send you. The South Australians on the KC 130 out of Adelaide yesterday and today the Tasmanians have arrived and they're here from the West, they're here from Queensland, they’re here from the ACT and the Kiwis are here, too. There's a few of them, but I'm sure if we needed more, they'd come.

JOURNALIST: Are you confident there’s enough resources in place to fight the fires?

PRIME MINISTER: It's probably best to leave the operational questions to the Commissioner or Gladys.

SHANE FITZSIMMONS, COMMISSIONER OF THE NEW SOUTH WALES RURAL FIRE SERVICE: The simple answer is yes, I am. As I say, we're bolstering up our numbers in anticipation of Tuesday. We are working very closely with the Federal Government through Emergency Management Australia and the Defence Force. We've got a standing arrangement with the with the Richmond RAAF base where they're critical to supporting our operation with a large air tanker base. We've also been using them over the last couple of weeks, particularly with the transport and movement of firefighters, to make sure we've got the capability and the capacity where we need it, whether that's domestically here in New South Wales or indeed helping us transport teams from interstate. That's been a critical tool in the firefighting effort. And we're also in discussions at the moment with the capacity and the ability of the of the Defence Force to see if we can get some additional technological support potentially over coming days and weeks to bolster what we've already got operating here in New South Wales, particularly given the potential spread of the geography from the Queensland border much further south. So we are very mindful of that, which is why we are talking to our colleagues and we're getting a significant augmentation from Victoria in the next 24 hours. We've already been in contact with our colleagues in Canada and the United States, as you know, for the last decade. We've been regularly sending teams of Australian and New Zealand firefighters over to Canada and the United States to help with firefighting. And the arrangement is that we will reciprocate and help each other when we need to. We're flagging the intent that as we get into the worst of the season, as we get into the summer months, there's every likelihood that we can even draw on that sort of capacity that we've got standing provisions with. So, yes, we are we are working with the resources available. We're increasing those numbers where we think we need to. And I've got I've got absolute unwavering support from the Premier and the Minister and the New South Wales Government to do what we need to do when we need to do it. And we'll sort out the details thereafter.

JOURNALIST: Commissioner, there has been a warning extending from the RFS that you may not be able to help everyone who needs helping in the coming days. Does that warning stand?

SHANE FITZSIMMONS, COMMISSIONER OF THE NEW SOUTH WALES RURAL FIRE SERVICE: That warning stands and has been in place as long as I can remember, for decades we have said time and time again, when you get very dangerous and volatile conditions, no one can guarantee that a fire engine or a firefighter will be at your front door. We simply cannot do it. And you can see the extraordinary events that we experienced here in recent days. Never before have we had 17 concurrent emergency warning fires burning at once, all competing desperately for resources, desperately for support, desperately for assistance. The reality is we simply couldn't get to every individual. Don't get me wrong, we tried our damnedest to get wherever we could, providing it was safe and able to do so. But access was cut off. Access was restricted to either the people on the ground or indeed the aircraft in the air. A lot of aircraft have been grounded. The conditions were too volatile. The air was too turbulent. But we will do our very best to save and protect everybody and everything as much as we can. But we have to make sure our overriding priority is not to compromise the safety and welfare of the men and women on the frontline, desperately trying to do whatever they can to save and protect everybody. We need to be reminded, too, that so many of our members are the community. So when their communities are hurting, they are hurting. They're losing their own infrastructure. They're losing their own homes, they're losing their own property. And then sadly, time and time again, despite my very best efforts and the collective efforts of all of us and echoed here today by all these people that have lost homes and had their homes saved, we don't want our members, particularly our volunteers, to feel like they've let their community down, to feel like they've failed when they haven't been able to save everything. Because the reality is, when we when we get through the enormity of the firefighting effort and we start to properly take stock of what's lost, most importantly in that stocktake, we'll be taking stock of what's been saved. And I can be pretty confident that we'll be talking at a much greater ratio of what they've been able to save versus what they've been able to lose. And I mean, no disrespect or to be insensitive to all those that have lost everything and particularly those who have lost loved ones. But the reality is it could have been so much worse, a whole lot worse if it wasn't for everybody's individual and collective effort.

JOURNALIST: How are you [inaudible]?

SHANE FITZSIMMONS, COMMISSIONER OF THE NEW SOUTH WALES RURAL FIRE SERVICE: It's always our challenge and we are churning through, You imagined it, 500 to 1,300 people per day, per night shift. We're rotating crews on a constant basis. That's why we are consuming thousands of volunteers, thousands of firefighters, paid firefighters, volunteer firefighters, not from just across New South Wales, but right across Australia. That's why we're calling them in early, because we want to help manage that fatigue. We want to help turn those crews over. And it's not just the firefighters. It's all the emergency workers. It's all the emergency management teams, the welfare support, the infrastructure teams, the communications, transport. They're all working 24 hours a day. And that requires a lots of crews, lots of rotation. And our focus is on fatigue management, because fatigue management links with safety.

JOURNALIST: Ahead of Tuesday [inaudible]?

SHANE FITZSIMMONS, COMMISSIONER OF THE NEW SOUTH WALES RURAL FIRE SERVICE: Ahead of Tuesday, we are clearly winding up. We've got a major operations still going on. And we know we've got to build up even more for what we're expecting on Wednesday. And not only are we going to do our part, but we're going to be calling on over and over again for the community to do their part. And that's about being prepared. It's about having a plan and it's about being ready to act in accordance with what you're hearing and what you're observing.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister I’m staying in a motel with a couple who’ve had to flee their house, they’ve asked me to ask you what you’re doing about climate change long term? That’s what the couple in my hotel have asked me to ask you.

PRIME MINISTER: I'll give the same answer I gave yesterday, and that is I'm focussed on the needs of the people in this room today, as is the Premier, the needs of resourcing of our firefighters and to ensure that they have everything they need, to keep those firefighters safe and to protect as many properties as we can. One of the things, one of the stories that I heard today and the Commissioner is just referred to it because it's not uncommon. You've got firefighters out there saving someone else's house while their own house is burning down. And when we're in that sort of a situation, that's where our attention must be.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible] getting extra funding to deal with these disasters, are local governments getting extra funding?

PRIME MINISTER: The Premier can answer that…

THE HON. GLADYS BEREJIKLIAN, PREMIER OF NSW: Well, obviously, all levels of government are working together and every community that we visit, the local council is intricately involved in what we're doing. And what we really appreciate from councils as well as obviously other agencies is the local knowledge. When you’re actually asking volunteers to come from different parts of the state, in fact, different parts of the nation, they do an amazing job but that local expertise is so critical. And that's what we really want to thank local council, local government as well for the input they’re having into this process and just echoing everyone's comments, it's humbling to know how much assistance has been given through volunteers and also other agencies. But I also want to stress it's not just the people who are going through the property loss and loss of life that are traumatized. But a lot of our workers, when you mix emotion and fatigue, that is a concern. And I'm extremely relieved that we've been able to reinforce, replenish and obviously gear up for Tuesday and Wednesday. And that's really critical. I've made sure we've done a welfare check on every coordinator and every major decision maker we've come into contact with. Some people have been working straight through for two or three days. We're urging people to take a break, provide those reinforcements, because we don't want anyone to suffer unnecessarily because you can't underestimate the trauma that people are going through. And just from being here for a short time, when you hear stories of what people are experiencing, it is difficult. But if you have to do that all day, every day, we need to make sure everybody is supported during this process.

JOURNALIST: On Tuesday will you consider delaying Parliament so the local MP’s can remain in their communities?

THE HON. GLADYS BEREJIKLIAN, PREMIER OF NSW: We've already said that any local MP who wants to be in their community should stay in their community. That's a call for them. Parliament will continue. It's important for us to continue as much as possible what we would ordinarily do and it actually heartened me as I drove through parts of this community to see people going about their business on a Sunday as they would on a Sunday. People were attending social activities or sporting activities. That's what we want to see. We want people to get on with business where they can. Obviously, there's a lot of trauma and a lot of people have been impacted. But also, you know, part of the recovery is doing things that we're used to, is getting on with what we're used to. And certainly my message to all of our colleagues is we have to do the same for those colleagues who've got communities who need them back home. Please stay in your communities we’ll provide you leave for the rest of us we need to keep working hard to make sure we're making the decisions, providing that voice and in fact, having a forum to thank everybody for what we're going through.

JOURNALIST: Premier we’ve heard from a lot of evacuees who are saying they’re worried about being forgotten in the longer term. The people you’ve met today, what are they telling you about what their needs will be once the immediate disaster is over, partuclarly in the coming months and years?

THE HON. GLADYS BEREJIKLIAN, PREMIER OF NSW: Well, to be honest, people's immediate focus is the next few days some people have left their homes and need somewhere to sleep tonight. So the immediate focus, can I stress today and the next few days will be to find stable accommodation, resources and just the basic necessities of life. But we have already appointed you Euan Ferguson as our disaster recovery officer, our coordinator. Normally you wait till after the fires have subsided and you go into the next phase. We haven't waited for that. We want the planning, the recovery work to start already. We want people to be able to resume their lives as much as possible as soon as possible. But we're under no illusions. When communities go through the trauma that we've seen, it can take a year or so for a complete recovery. For some people, it'll take less time. But for others, it could take longer. And we're here for the long haul. We're not just here today and tomorrow. But as I've said, for weeks and months and possibly years ahead. That's certainly been our experience elsewhere. And it will continue to be our experience, they will not be forgotten. But I have to stress that our immediate concern, our immediate concern is meeting people's immediate needs.

JOURNALIST: Why was your response ‘not today’ when it came to the climate change question?

THE HON. GLADYS BEREJIKLIAN, PREMIER OF NSW: Because today is about protecting life. Today is about protecting, I mean, if you talk to people that are traumatized, you need to address their concerns first and foremost. We have time on our hands to talk about those other issues. Today is about making sure people are okay.

JOURNALIST: Commissioner, can I ask one last question. Commissioner, just in terms of the military, you spoke a bit more about how technology can be used in practical terms on the ground, how [inaudible] recovery process?

SHANE FITZSIMMONS, COMMISSIONER OF THE NEW SOUTH WALES RURAL FIRE SERVICE: Well, at this stage, we don't have tasking for the military other than what we're meaningfully engaging them with. We work very closely with them routinely, they've got liaison in our state centres. So we are working shoulder to shoulder. As I say, they were able to fulfil a need for us in relation to transport. They're a critical partner when it comes to our large air tanker and we'll continue to work with them about other things that are important that we feel are necessary when it comes to the overall firefighting effort.