Legislative Council: Wednesday, February 08, 2023



Ash Wednesday Bushfires

The Hon. R.B. MARTIN (16:05): I move:

That this council—

1. Recognises that 16 February 2023 will mark 40 years since the devastating Ash Wednesday bushfires;

2. Reflects and remembers the 75 people that died, 3,700 buildings that were destroyed, 2,545 families that lost their homes and the innumerable number of plant and animal species destroyed; and

3. Acknowledges the resilience of South Australian communities in overcoming natural disasters.

Next week, on 16 February, we will mark 40 years since the day that is remembered around Australia as the Ash Wednesday bushfires. The tragedy is sometimes referred to in South Australia as Ash Wednesday the second, due to an earlier fire event in 1980 first attracting the moniker. Both events occurred on a day of the Christian calendar bearing that name, but they differed greatly in severity. There is no mistaking the Ash Wednesday of 16 February 1983.

That summer our nation was in the midst of a devastating 10-month drought. In the days leading up to the fires weather conditions were intensely dry, with record-breaking heat. On the day of the fires, being very hot and very windy, a red alert warning was in effect, with a total fire ban in place. Nevertheless, the first fire of the day was reported mid-morning.

By midday, with a strong northerly wind blowing, fires raged out of control in the Adelaide Hills, Clare Valley and in the South-East. By 3pm the severity of both the weather conditions and the fires was extreme. Changing winds of 90 to 100 km/h aggravated the intensity of the fires.

A state of disaster was declared for the first time in South Australia's history. The extraordinary conditions meant that helicopters were grounded for hours and that the available firefighting equipment, some of which was in poor repair, was disastrously inadequate. Contemporary accounts from survivors are distressing to read. The fire front moved so quickly that for many the warnings came only minutes before the flames did. People looked on helplessly as they watched their homes burn, having rescued what few possessions they could.

Families were separated amid the confusion of smoke, ash, wind and choking heat, some of them never to be reunited. By day's end, 28 South Australians had lost their lives, three of whom were CFS volunteers, along with hundreds of thousands of livestock and uncountable numbers of native animals. A further 47 lives were lost in Victoria. Thousands more people were injured, and across both states well over 2,000 homes were destroyed and more than 400,000 hectares were burnt.

A cooler change and light rain came across parts of the state that night, and most of the fires were contained by Thursday morning, but flare-ups and spot fires continued to challenge exhausted firefighters in the days and even weeks to follow. Financial damages across the state were devastating. Businesses, homes and lives in the affected areas took many years to rebuild, and the South-East pastoral district struggled for years to recover productivity.

The impact of the financial loss was tremendous, but it cannot be compared to the emotional and psychological impact of the day's events. South Australia mourned the tragic loss of human lives and the loss of animals. Many members of our community lost everything they owned. In addition to mourning losses of life and property, in a broader sense many people across our state mourned the loss of a sense of safety.

The events of Ash Wednesday 1983 were extremely traumatic, and that trauma has left a lasting mark on our community. We have never forgotten—and I am sure we will never forget—that on a day of catastrophic fire danger everything can change in an instant. Lessons learnt on the ground that day had an immediate influence in shaping our bushfire management practices, which today are significantly more sophisticated than they were in 1983.

Technology in particular continues to enable meaningful advances, and hard lessons learned have helped us to employ evolving technologies to create the greatest possible advantage in managing risk, responding to emergencies and keeping our community safe. Drone monitoring, methods of communication to residents in the threatened areas and firefighting equipment are all areas where technology continues to improve our ability to respond swiftly and effectively to emergencies.

The Malinauskas Labor government recognises the need for government to enable cross-agency bushfire risk management measures and to support our community to prepare for and stay safe in bushfire emergencies. Demonstrating leadership in addressing climate change is one high-level piece of the puzzle, but the inevitable challenges of bushfire seasons will still come year on year. We take very seriously our obligation to support our agencies and our communities.

New laws now enable South Australia Police to seek a court order to monitor the movements of convicted bushfire offenders during the fire danger season. Ahead of summer, our government honoured an election promise by reinstating the farm firefighting units grant program. Our $2 million commitment in the state budget is supporting 276 farmers across 45 council areas to purchase essential firefighting equipment that will help protect lives, livestock and property.

Our government is working with and will continue to work with our agencies—the SES, the CFS, the MFS, SAPOL and others—to manage the risk and respond to crises. There will always be challenges, but through appropriate prevention and readiness measures, we can do our best to ensure we will not see another event as devastating as the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires. The resilience of our community in the weeks, months and years after those fires was remarkable, and I believe it helped to shape our present because we still embody that spirit of resilience today. Every time we endure a tragedy in South Australia, be it fire or flood, we rebound, rebuild and recover.

Recently, our affected communities have shown tremendous strength during the Kangaroo Island fires of 2020 and the ongoing flooding in the Riverland. Our broader community has responded with empathy and support. I hope this remarkable resilience will continue to see us through the future challenges we face together, and I hope that future governments will continue to heed the lessons each new challenge brings us.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. D.G.E. Hood.