Legislative Council: Wednesday, February 22, 2023


Ash Wednesday Bushfires

Adjourned debate on motion of Hon. R.B. Martin:

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.

(Continued from 8 February 2023.)

The Hon. N.J. CENTOFANTI (Leader of the Opposition) (16:50): I rise today to speak in support of the motion. In 1983, Australia was in the grip of a severe drought. On Wednesday 16 February, a temperature of 43° was recorded over large parts of South Australia and Victoria that, combined with strong winds, led to the breakout of 180 fires across both states. The sheer number and magnitude of the near 200 fires and the lives lost and the devastating destruction of infrastructure, animals and our natural environment caused those fires to be dubbed the devastating Ash Wednesday bushfires.

In South Australia, it is known as Ash Wednesday II, as the state had experienced disastrous bushfires three years prior, on 20 February 1980, which also happened to occur on a Wednesday. Temperatures had already reached 40° by mid-morning and they were forecast to reach a high of 43°. The first fires broke out at McLaren Flat just before noon, shortly followed by fires in the Adelaide Hills, the South-East, Eyre Peninsula and the Mid North. The Adelaide Hills were the worst affected areas in South Australia. The hilly terrain made access hard for firefighting units, which were quickly overwhelmed by the ferocity of the fires.

In South Australia, the fires burned through a combined 160,000 hectares throughout the state and destroyed 383 homes and another 200 buildings. According to the South Australian History Hub, the estimated financial damage was $204 million across the state. Absolutely tragically, there were 75 casualties across the two states, with 47 people dying in Victoria and 28 people dying in South Australia. Of the 28 lives lost in South Australia, 17 of those were volunteer firefighters, three of whom served with the CFS.

The Ash Wednesday II bushfires played a significant role in helping shape the bushfire management practices we have today. This included improvements to equipment and communications and led to an increase in the capacity to respond. It also paved the way for changes to public safety strategies. In 1983, Adelaide Hills residents were advised to return to defend their properties. This undoubtedly played a part in the number of casualties. People are now given the advice to leave their properties well in advance and to make sure they are prepared to defend it if they choose to stay.

We should take this opportunity to reflect on the immense destruction that occurred 40 years ago and remember the 28 people who, sadly, lost their lives. We must also be thankful that we now have substantially better firefighting capabilities, so that we will hopefully never have another bushfire disaster as bad as the Ash Wednesday of 1983.

The Hon. C.M. SCRIVEN (Minister for Primary Industries and Regional Development, Minister for Forest Industries) (16:54): Four decades ago, Australia experienced one of its most deadly bushfire events to date. Within a 24-hour period on 16 February 1983, a day we now know as Ash Wednesday, 180 fires burned across South Australia and Victoria claiming 75 lives, 28 in South Australia and 47 in Victoria. Scores more people were injured and over 3,000 homes were destroyed, not to mention the vast amount of farm sheds, fences and infrastructure burnt out as 400,000 hectares of land was consumed.

I was a teenager at high school, and I remember it well. My father was called on as a volunteer firefighter. Like many of my schoolfriends, I was gripped with the terror that he would be caught in the frequently changing conditions and not return. I was fortunate that he did return to our family, but many others were not so fortunate.

The South-East of the state usually enjoys good reliable rainfall, but in the year leading up to Ash Wednesday we were impacted by drought. On 8 February, just eight days before the fateful day, the Bureau of Meteorology reported:

The severity and extent of the current drought makes it one of the worst to affect southeastern Australia in the past 100 years.

Ash Wednesday 1983 had some unique characteristics. The Coroner noted that many long-term residents of the area said that it was the worst day they had ever experienced weatherwise. There were strong northerly winds gusting up to 100 km/h, temperatures reached as high as 44°, relative humidity dropped to 10 per cent and there was a high fuel load of very dry material. However, it was the cold front that came through later in the day that made these fires so terrible.

At midday, the first of many fires across the South-East broke out, spreading with great ferocity and travelling at unusually high speeds. One fire in those conditions would have been bad enough, but there were seven significant fires and two lesser fires in the South-East, with all but a few joining together by the end of the day.

At 3.45pm, the cool change came through a lot earlier than forecast, changing wind direction from north-west to south-west, catching many off guard and dramatically affecting the run of the fires. There was now a deadly 15-kilometre fire front, whipped up by ferociously strong winds. Firefighters trying to contain the flanks of the fire were now directly in its path, resulting in the deaths of local deputy CFS supervisor, Brian Nosworthy; CFS volunteer, Andrew Lemke; and truck driver, P.J. O'Leary.

Following the wind change, Mary Williams and her four children perished in their car trying to escape the blaze near Kalangadoo, as did their good friend and neighbour, Gavin Rogers, who tried to rescue them. Gavin posthumously received several awards for bravery, including one from the Royal Humane Society of Australasia. Gavin's uncle also died from a heart attack that day and, to compound their grief, both the Williams and Rogers families lost their homes and their properties. My heart goes out to family members as they commemorate these tragic events.

Over 500 people in the South-East suffered physical injuries requiring treatment, either in the field or in hospital, but many more were mentally impacted by the sights, sounds and smells they experienced not just on Ash Wednesday but also in the aftermath as they got to work cleaning up and rebuilding their lives and their properties. For many survivors, the distinct smell of bushfire and burned livestock is a trigger that brings back memories of these traumatic events to this very day.

However, the catastrophic impact of Ash Wednesday was a catalyst that led to improvements in the way we fight fires, especially in the areas of communications, equipment and infrastructure. For example, powerlines were the ignition point for many of the fires on Ash Wednesday due to the high winds, so improvements have been made to infrastructure and precautions taken to reduce risk on extreme fire danger days.

Ash Wednesday also revealed the impact of cool changes on fire behaviour, leading to safer firefighting practices and better provision of information to emergency services and today of course we also have the advantage of technology to facilitate real-time communication, as well as firefighting aircraft so we can start attacking the fire as soon as possible after ignition.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the resilience of my community in recovering from that disaster. In the initial aftermath, farmers received support from far and wide to rebuild external fences and bury burnt livestock, but it took several years and a great deal of effort to rebuild the homes, sheds, cattle yards and internal fences that were razed.

It is also very important to note the mental health impacts of these types of natural disasters on survivors, first responders, health workers, community members, family members and, indeed, across the broader community. Fortunately, as societies and as governments we are now much more aware of these types of impacts and more responsive when we face other natural disasters today.

Ash Wednesday was a time of tragedy, but it was also a time of courageous deeds and remarkable feats, and of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. That is something for which we can be grateful, despite the tragedy that we experienced. I thank the Hon. Reggie Martin for bringing this motion to the chamber, and I support it wholeheartedly. I am sure I am joined by all in this chamber in remembering the events and sending our best thoughts to those who were impacted and those who still remember today.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (17:01): I rise today to support this motion on behalf of the Greens and reflect upon Ash Wednesday and remember those 75 people who died. I note that 3,700 buildings were destroyed and 2,545 families lost their homes, as well as, of course, the innumerable number of plant and animal species that were destroyed.

Ash Wednesday is a day that even 40 years on people still remember with chilling clarity—the smell, the sound, the haze. People could do nothing but stand and watch as their lives were destroyed and their communities burned. In the months leading up to the Ash Wednesday fire, South Australia was in the grip of a severe drought. On the day of the fire, temperatures were over 40º and the wind was strong. This, as we now know, is a catastrophic combination.

The speed and ferocity of the flames, aided by abundant fuels and a landscape immersed in smoke, made fire suppression and containment impossible. In many cases residents fended for themselves as fires broke communications, cut off escape routes and severed electricity and water supplies. The sheer scale of the destruction remains difficult to comprehend. Those 75 people died because of the fires, including 17 firefighters. More than 3,700 buildings were destroyed or damaged and, as I said, 2,545 individuals and families lost their homes—an extraordinary and sad part of our state's heritage. Hundreds of thousands of livestock and native animals were killed or had to be destroyed.

Psychological studies undertaken in the months and years after the Ash Wednesday fires found that those events left many in the affected communities with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, even decades after the disaster. We have known since the 1980s that more greenhouse gases entering our atmosphere increase the likelihood of conditions that drive catastrophic bushfires like Ash Wednesday. We are having more and more extreme fire days and we are seeing longer and more intense fire seasons.

Climate change has left forests and grasslands drier, which means bushfire season has started earlier and will likely last longer. Higher temperature and drier conditions have made the window for hazard reduction shorter. It is essential that governments act now to build the climate resilience and disaster preparedness capacity we so desperately need.

The Greens have actively listened to the community and to the experts and supported a range of steps to build resilience and to mitigate the effect of bushfires. We have long called for evidence-based hazard reduction burning. False claims by some commentators that Greens' policies have contributed to the severity of fires, particularly those in the 2019-20 year, serve as a way to deflect from the major underlying cause that fuels the increasingly severe fires we now face.

Now more than ever we need to lift funding for emergency services to support equipment and personnel acquisition that are critical for managing bushfires and other disasters. In 2020, the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements recommended that the commonwealth and state and territory governments develop an Australian based and registered national aerial firefighting capability, to be tasked accordingly to the greatest national need.

The Greens have called for the federal government to task Emergency Management Australia (EMA) with identifying gaps in our aerial firefighting capability, working with the state and territory governments as well as the Australian and New Zealand national council for fire and emergency services. This report will be the basis of a procurement strategy to create a national stock of specialised disaster response equipment that can be accessed by states and territories as needed.

That bushfire royal commission recognised the importance of First Nations land management and made two recommendations for governments to work with traditional owners to explore the relationship between First Nations people and fire management and natural disaster resilience. That is why the Greens have campaigned for expanding the rangers program and employing more First Nations people to protect their lands, waters, rivers, lakes and animals and plants that rely on them as well as expanding First Nations-led cultural burning programs to ensure First Nations people are involved in fuel and hazard reduction on country, which enhances the health of the land and its people.

Fossil fuel corporations that actively contribute to the escalating climate crisis should bear responsibility for the damage they cause. That is why at a federal level the Greens have introduced legislation into the parliament that would give people who lost their homes or loved ones from natural disasters the chance to sue and seek compensation from the coal, oil and gas companies profiting from climate damage.

This climate crisis is putting lives at risk right now, and we must take those steps necessary so we never again see the destruction on the scale of Ash Wednesday that was had in this state. I commend the motion.

The Hon. F. PANGALLO (17:06): I rise to speak in support of the motion by the Hon. Reggie Martin marking the 40th anniversary of the Ash Wednesday bushfires in South Australia and across the border in Victoria. As we know, there was a shocking loss of lives and property as merciless flames, whipped up by gale force winds on a stifling hot day, tore through the Adelaide Hills and in the South-East of the state.

In the aftermath of those fires much was learnt from the horrific catastrophe, with many changes to firefighting procedures, communications and bushfire preparation and prevention methods implemented. Fighting the unpredictable nature of wildfires continues to be a challenge in an age of climate change.

Looking back to 40 years ago, I can see where and why those courageous volunteer firefighters and other emergency services were so underprepared and underequipped for such an inferno. Communications is one of the most important areas that has dramatically changed the way we can ready for disasters like fires and floods. The year 1983 was still four years from the introduction of the first handheld mobile phone by Telecom, later Telstra, an expensive model that was known as 'the brick'.

Now, the mobile phone is a life-saving communication technology tool that is widely and commonly available and affordable to all, but back then they were still reliant on two-way CB frequency radios, AM radio stations and television to quickly spread alerts, while loud fire alarms would still blare from towers dotted through the Hills and regional areas. Thankfully, the digital age and the advancements it has brought in mobile phone and internet technology has changed all that to provide almost instant communication in the community and with emergency services.

I can still vividly remember that terrible day. Adelaide had been experiencing dry heatwave conditions, but that day was especially ominous. A combination of searing 40º-plus heat and strong, gusting northerly winds turning the skies into a dark dust haze was going to be a recipe for disaster. As a later inquiry would find, many of the blazes were caused by arcing powerlines.

At the time, I was working at radio station 5DN in North Adelaide as the producer of Jeremy Cordeaux's top-rating morning talk program. The first reports of blazes started coming in that morning. Suddenly, radio stations like 5DN became an important communication centre for worried home owners and landowners. Warnings were issued for people to stay clear and not enter active fire zones, which were only a few kilometres from the city itself—unless, of course, they were enlisted firefighters with the CFS.

Tragically, some failed to take heed of those warnings and perished trying to get back to their properties to save them and their possessions or to evacuate and rescue loved ones and animals. My journalist colleagues at 5DN bravely went into the fire fronts without protective clothing that you see today—just their normal clothes, a two-way radio and their tape recorders tucked under their arms. Their coverage of this event was incredible and also quite moving.

The most chilling account of the personal devastation and heartbreak came from one of my own colleagues at 5DN, Walkley Award-winning journalist, the late Murray Nicoll, whom I also worked with at The News and later Channel 7. Nic was not just an accomplished and fearless journalist, he was also an emergency firefighter. He was covering the fires when he got word that his own house on Yarrabee Road at Greenhill was in the path of the flames and in danger. Murray got there just as the flames started licking his house.

What followed was one of the most dramatic and heartbreaking news reports ever broadcast. Wearing just a pair of overalls, Murray ducked flying embers as he was blinded by billowing smoke. Engulfed with gut-wrenching emotion, he vividly described his house and his possessions being destroyed and his fears for his own safety as he sought refuge behind a wall as huge flames, fanned by the winds, roared around him. I could not imagine the fear that would have gripped Murray and those who were with him at that time.

Murray deservedly went on to win one of his two Walkley Awards for journalism for that gripping report. That evening, people on the plains and along our metropolitan beaches could see a long line of flames and bright red embers of burnt trees capping the Adelaide Hills like a vein of lava. We were unsure of the extent of the damage, but it looked savage and massive, and we all prayed for a change in weather conditions and rain to put out the destructive fires.

In the days that followed, the enormous damage became evident. Haunting images on television and published by our two daily newspapers, TheNews and TheAdvertiser, gave us some insight into the damage that was wreaked. One that stands out was an image of a line of burnt out cars on the freeway going into the Hills in which drivers perished trying to get back to their homes. I can clearly recall, even as a youngster, we would often hear messages of how you should take care during bushfires. One of those messages that I recall was that if you were in a bushfire and you were in a car, that you should remain in the car. Sadly, there were consequences to that in later years and you do not hear that message anymore.

As I mentioned, there were ghostly images of the burnt-out cars on the freeway where drivers lost their lives. The smoke was still evident as it drifted through that area. They were gloomy images. Another was a ghostly image of the destruction at Mount Lofty and the devastation of losses in the South-East, as was mentioned by the Hon. Clare Scriven. We learnt a lot from that experience and methods and procedures, including power and natural vegetation management, which had to change, and it did. We continue to learn. I commend the motion to the chamber.

The Hon. S.L. GAME (17:14): I rise to further acknowledge the devastating toll of the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires, and I recognise that Ash Wednesday is one of a long list of serious and deadly South Australian bushfires:

the 1955 Black Tuesday bushfires: on 2 January 1955 a series of bushfires broke out in the Adelaide Hills, killing 26 people and destroying over 200 homes;

the 2005 Wangary bushfire: on 10 January 2005 a bushfire broke out on Eyre Peninsula, killing nine people and destroying over 90 homes;

the 2015 Pinery bushfire: on 25 November 2015 a bushfire broke out in the Mid North region of South Australia, killing two people and destroying over 90 homes; and

the 2019-20 Kangaroo Island bushfires: on 20 December 2019 a bushfire broke out on Kangaroo Island, destroying over 200,000 hectares of land and killing two people. A simultaneous Adelaide Hills bushfire broke out, destroying over 25,000 hectares of land and 86 homes.

Australia has always been a land of extremes of fires and floods, although it is important to note that the bushfire data can vary. Depending on the source and methodology used, it is estimated that in the 2018-19 bushfire season there were over 46,000 bushfires nationally, with over 11 million hectares of land burnt and over 30 people killed. In the 2019-20 bushfire season there were over 50,000 bushfires nationally, with over 12 million hectares of land burnt, and again over 30 people killed. The 2020-21 bushfire season was less severe; however, it made up for that with back-to-back seasons of significant flooding events.

I take the opportunity to acknowledge the incredible work of our Country Fire Service and our State Emergency Service and all the first responders who give their all, and tragically sometimes their lives, to keep people, property and bushland safe. The 2020-21 South Australian Country Fire Service annual report notes that volunteers provided approximately 1.3 million hours of dedicated voluntary service. It is, unfortunately, not unheard of during bushfire events for these volunteer firefighters and their families to suffer personal loss whilst out saving other people's homes and property. We must ensure these selfless volunteers continue to be taken care of through an adequately-funded CFS Foundation and CFS Volunteer Association.

The South Australian State Emergency Service also had a busy 2020-21 reporting period, with over 6,300 calls for help lodged. As another volunteer-based organisation, the SES, according to their strategic overview, exists to provide an emergency response capability that enhances community safety and minimises the loss of life, injuries and damage from emergencies and natural disasters. This is a vital service for South Australians.

CFS and SES volunteers dedicate significant time to training and team building. They operate on very modest budgets and share the values of community service and tenacity. Importantly, I thank those volunteers who are unseen behind the frontlines during a bushfire emergency. These are service clubs and community groups who work tirelessly, making sandwiches for our firefighters, delivering drinking water to the CFS and SES sheds, providing home-cooked meals for those who have had to evacuate properties, and running activities and games for children who are camped out on football fields as last refuge locations.

Whether this is Country Women's Association, Lions Clubs, Kiwanis, Rotary, Men's Sheds, local RSL branches or any other, Australia would be a lesser place without the community spirit and volunteerism demonstrated in hard times. I recall meeting with the Lions Club of Murray Bridge City, who were providing meals to homeless locals. Circumstances had been exacerbated by the River Murray floods, as many people living in tents along riverbank were displaced. Their service is not only functional, providing healthy and hearty meals, but conducted with dignity and empathy for those in their community afflicted by hard times.

I have heard firsthand of the mental impact upon CFS and SES volunteers in the aftermath of an emergency response; the intense pressure to keep their family and community safe cannot be underestimated. We must continue to fund and support these organisations so they are able to provide adequate post-event care to their brave volunteers. A bushfire is a terrifying experience. Ash Wednesday left a grim mark on many South Australians' memory 40 years ago. Stepping up to assist your neighbours during an emergency, whether volunteering on the frontline or in a supporting role, is a part of our South Australian culture that we should preserve and celebrate.

The Hon. R.B. MARTIN (17:19): I would like to start by acknowledging the Hon. Nicola Centofanti, the Hon. Clare Scriven, the Hon. Tammy Franks, the Hon. Frank Pangallo and the Hon. Sarah Game and thank them for their contributions and support of this motion. Ash Wednesday might have been 40 years ago but it has left an indelible mark on the soul of South Australia.

While we reflect on the tragic circumstances of that day, we can also be proud of the way South Australians came together to support each other and to prove their resilience to overcome the challenges of recovery. By passing this motion today, we pay our respects to all those who were involved in the Ash Wednesday disaster and to those who have kept us safe in subsequent disasters. I commend the motion.

Motion carried.