WEST Australian Liberal Senator Chris Back still has fire in his belly, and is prepared to cop an official warning, to commend the raw courage and brave dedication of volunteer and professional firefighters who recently battled the Esperance bushfires.
An official complaint was made against Senator Back for wearing a prop during a speech he gave in the Senate yesterday on the bushfire disaster that claimed four lives in the Esperance community and ravaged cropping land.
The WA Liberal Senator donned the uniform he wore as the former chief executive of the Bush Fires Board of WA, to “recognise the contribution of firefighters throughout Australia, particularly volunteers and those who support them”.
But the Senator’s bright orange protective jacket – worn draped over his usual suit and tie – drew the ire of South Australian Labor Senator Anne McEwen who referred it to the Senate President for using props in the Senate chamber.
However, that complaint sparked a rebuke from Victorian Liberal Senator Michael Ronaldson who said he believed it was appropriate on occasions to make statements like Senator Back had.
Senator Ronaldson said the firefighters’ uniform was not a political prop or a photo stunt and the bushfires were “devastating” with “tragic loss of life”.
“The Esperance community has been decimated by what occurred,” he said.
“I would just urge a word of caution.
“I would not view what Senator Back has done as being the sort of thing that would elicit a political or other response.”
WA Senators from all parties banded together to pass a motion in the Senate yesterday acknowledging the devastating bushfires that swept through the Salmon Gums, Scaddan, Grass Patch, Merivale and Norseman areas north of Esperance representing the State's worst bushfires in more than 50 years.
The motion was moved by WA Liberal Senator Dean Smith and backed by other party members; Mathias Cormann, Michaelia Cash, Chris Back, David Johnston and Linda Reynolds.
It was also supported by WA Labor’s Glenn Sterle, Joe Bullock and Sue Lines, Greens Scott Ludlam and Rachael Siewert and the Palmer United Party’s Dio Wang.
The motion acknowledge the “determined efforts of the more than 200 volunteer firefighters, Fire and Emergency Services Authority personnel, State Emergency Services volunteers, and pastoralists and farmers who sought to save as many properties as possible”.
It also expressed “sincere regret” and sympathy at the tragic death of Scadden farmer Kym Curnow who “lost his life after bravely making sure homes were being evacuated and turning back vehicles” and the “tragic deaths” of European workers Anna Winther from Norway, Julia Kohrs-Lichte from Germany and Thomas Butcher from England, who died trying to flee the fire.
Senator Back said the horrific fire started on November 15 as a result of lightning strike in crown land around the area of Cascade and Scaddan to the north of Esperance burning a total of 300,000 hectares.
“To put that into context, it exceeds the entire area of the ACT, but it is only about six per cent of the entire area of the Esperance shire,” he said.
Senator Back said Mr Curnow was a volunteer firefighter and “a leader in his community, much loved, the life of parties and, of course, he will be sorely missed”.
He said, in addition to the area of land burnt, about 75,000 hectares of cropland was destroyed by the fires and 4500 livestock.
At one stage the fires were estimated to be moving at 23 kilometres an hour, “so you can understand the devastation”, he said.
But the lack of capacity for mobile phone communications was “unfortunately” a “very significant factor” in the fires, the WA Liberal said while pledging action.
“It is perverse and tragic, because in that area of Esperance the largest single number of towers to cover black spots has in fact been approved but they are obviously not yet in position,” he said.
“As one lady from the Scaddan area said to me on Friday, 'I haven't spoken to my husband or my sons for the last four days. They're out fighting the fires. I don't know where they are and they can't communicate with us’.
“I can assure that community that, with the member for O'Connor, Mr Rick Wilson, and others, we will certainly be addressing those issues.”
Senator Back spoke about the role of volunteer fire brigade members and communication with professionals at the Department of Fire and Emergency Services personnel in Esperance.
“As Len Foster from the Country Fire Authority said to me when I first started as CEO of the Bush Fires Board, 'Chris, never mistake volunteerism for amateurism. Volunteers, properly trained and resourced, are the equal when it comes to their work on fire grounds’,” he said.
“Of course, as we saw in the Esperance fires, we needed the local expertise and the commitment of those many brigade members who, knowing one of their own close friends had died, continued fighting those fires.
“I want to record again my appreciation for the management of the Department of Fire and Emergency Services for the mature way in which all services dealt with what was an horrific but ongoing situation.”
Senator Back said the bushfires also raised questions as to whether firefighting personnel could enter crown land reserves after the lightning strike had started the fires.
He said he spoke to Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt this week who provided confirmation “that there is never a circumstance in which volunteer brigade members could not go into crown land owned by the Commonwealth to suppress, fight and mitigate major fires if life and property are at risk”.
Senator Back's speech can be seen here.