Steph Cooke unloads gear from a NSW RFS Fire Truck.
Steph Cooke on an RFS truck in Tumut.

Mr Speaker,

I’d like to join my colleagues from both sides of the house in expressing my condolences to the families and friends of the 25 victims of the bushfires which continue to burn around the State, and thank the Premier for moving this Condolence Motion.

It is entirely appropriate that we mark these tragic bushfires with condolences; in homes in Australia and overseas, families and friends mourn the loss of loved ones who gave everything defending our communities.

We have lost also homes, properties, livestock, fruit trees, beloved horses, pets, and gardens.

To everyone who has experienced loss from these fires my deepest sympathies go out to you all.

As the Member for Cootamundra I speak in support of all who served and volunteered in the Dunns Road Fire which started by lightning strike on the 28th of December 2019, just to the south of Gundagai in my electorate.

This blaze impacted some of our most famous alpine towns and mountain villages, destroying homes, pasture, assets and wilderness areas in Talbingo, Tumbarumba, Green Hills, Wondalga, Willigobung, Courabyra, Tumut, Gilmore Valley, Yarrangobilly, Laurel Hill, Yaven Creek, Batlow, Oberne Creek, Tumblong, Mount Adrah, Taradale, Mannus, Tooma and many others.

These communities have all been deeply impacted.

The fire ripped through 113,000 hectares of private land, 125,000 hectares of national park, and around 92,000 hectares of State forest.

Fire crews are still on site as they mop up the remnants of the massive combined fire front.

Regional New South Wales is more connected than we sometimes appreciate.

The rapid spread of news on the old Bush Telegraph, social media, or the close ties on a family tree keeps us in touch with others.

Tragedy in one part of the State is felt by loved ones all over.

Whilst hundreds of volunteers and supporters were working on the Dunns Road Fire on New Years Eve, another fire near Wandella took the lives of two incredible and much loved family men.

I want to acknowledge Renee Salway.

A creative soul, Renee worked for me in another life when we were both florists in my business Native Botanical.

Renee loved flowers, but she loved Patrick, horses and farm life more.

This beautiful woman left her job with me in Young to marry Patrick Salway and create a wonderful life and family of their own.

Patrick and his father Robert were killed on the family farm near Wandella.

Patrick was just 29 and Renee is pregnant with their second child. 

I want to express my deepest sympathies to her, and all of Robert and Patrick’s loved ones. 

I also pay tribute to David Harrison of Goulburn, who aged just 47, lost his life defending the property of a friend in Batlow.

His tragic loss during one of the terrifying nights of the Dunns Road Fire is a testament to his character, and I offer his loved ones, family and friends my deepest condolences.

There were many others who risked everything to defend properties and the livelihoods.

The people of Batlow were told their town was ‘undefendable’ and to expect the worst.

I was at several community meetings, including when this news was delivered.

Even with this information brave locals and Rural Fire Service volunteers, many from my electorate, stayed on to fight the terrifying blaze that tore through the pine plantations and apple orchards that are the livelihood of so many in the region.

In the town of Batlow itself tens of properties were destroyed. It is testament to the incredible work of the RFS and emergency services that the losses were not greater.

I commend Captain Daryl Watkins of Batlow and everyone who defended the town for their remarkable efforts.

The Dunns Road Fire continues to burn on the southern edge of my electorate and was only officially contained on Sunday afternoon.

It has turned some of our pristine wilderness in to funeral pyres of our unique flora and fauna.

It has taken an enormous effort to contain this beast.

The leadership of RFS Superintendent Roger Orr from Narrandera in the west of my electorate, in the face of this unprecedented challenge was nothing short of extraordinary.

I feel privileged to have met so many volunteers and emergency service workers who showed incredible courage in the face of unprecedented fire conditions. They were joined by colleagues in other organisations including Fire and Rescue NSW, the Forestry Corporation, National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Emergency and Fire Services of the ACT, the Northern Territory, Queensland, Tasmania, Western Australia, the United States and Canada.

I thank you for supporting our local RFS brigades and others from across NSW, many of whom I will mention shortly.

I got to see firsthand the amazing response of those on the front line of firefighting and in supporting roles.

We owe these volunteers and staff an enormous debt of gratitude.

I still marvel at the number of farmers and property owners who left their own homes undefended on severe and catastrophic fire condition days and came together to defend many properties and communities such as Tumblong at the tip of the Cootamundra Electorate.

These crews included brigades from:

  • Tumblong
  • Mundarlo
  • Boorowa
  • Gundagai
  • Berremangra
  • Maimuru
  • Wombat
  • Murringo
  • Thuddungra
  • Rugby
  • Boorowa North
  • Boara
  • McMahons
  • Kingsvale
  • Adjungbilly
  • Began Began
  • Stockinbingal
  • Cootamundra
  • Wallendbeen
  • Frampton
  • Cooneys Creek
  • Brawlin
  • Mt Horeb
  • Coolac
  • Wambanumba
  • Boothenba
  • Rye Park
  • Quambone

And let’s not forget the ‘Mosquito squad’ – scores of farmers and their ‘slip ons’ across the fire ground who worked alongside the RFS and played such a vital part in saving properties.

Apologies if I have missed any of you.

It was a privilege to catch up with so many of you, to make you snack packs, to chat about your brigades and to see you in action.

At its core the RFS is a ‘for the community, by the community’ organisation, and it must always remain so.

It brings together people from all walks of life, and it’s not uncommon to see several generations of the same family on the one tanker.

Fathers, daughters, sons, cousins, siblings, even grandparents and grandchildren.

I witnessed many of these relationships in the crews fighting the Dunns Road Fire, and worked alongside people like Di Lippaitt in the Tumut Fire Control Centre who not only silently carried the worries of the ever changing fire front, but how it would affect her husband and daughter out on tanker crews on the Tarcutta end of the fire, mostly in the Ellerslie Range and Westbrook Road.

Her daughter Courtney also spent time in Fire Comms in Tumut.

Also in Fire Comms were Wilma Cunningham from Griffith and Di Droscher from Batlow, who worked the day we thought Batlow would be lost, and then couldn’t return home for several days after.

The fire comms team worked around the clock relaying messages between the Fire Control Centre and brigades on the fire ground, relaying critical information on what the fires were doing, the areas under threat and most importantly where all the firefighting personnel were on the ground.

The welfare checks were a highlight of our work during this uncertain time.

I want to thank them for helping me learn new skills like scribing, and logistics officers Geoff Frowd and Michael Borg for allowing me to be an active part of their team.

These are just some of the people who rarely make the news, but who are an integral part of the firefighting effort.

Seeing the incredible work of this close-knit organisation first hand was a privilege, RFS Superintendent Roger Orr, Inspector Jon Gregory and the teams under their command dealt with difficult terrain, in many places only accessible on foot or by aircraft, conditions permitting, fighting a bushfire that joined with the East Ournie Creek and Green Valley fires to become one of the largest on record.

The success of the RFS fire crews and those that joined them would not have been possible without the help of the Forestry Corporation and the team headed up by regional manager for the Snowy Mountains Dean Anderson.

The Corporation’s employees joined firefighting crews, created fire breaks and helped save more than 120,000 hectares of pine trees which are so crucial to the region’s economy and the state’s timber industry.

The Forestry Corporation, Hume Forests, Hyne Timber, AKD, Visy and others are working together more closely than ever, to process the more than 50,000 hectares of burnt pine trees from the immediate supply area.

I want to note the efforts of the VRA and Search and Rescue in Batlow, Tumut and surrounding regions.

The members of these teams worked tirelessly to help others, and I know at least one member lost his own home while he was saving others.

My thoughts are with you and your family Mick.

To the volunteers of the SES, particularly those from Grenfell, my home town of Temora and my own unit at Junee, I thank you for your supporting efforts.

I want to particularly mention RFS volunteers Donna Martin and her husband Graham, who is the Tumut Group Captain.

They not only worked around the clock like so many others, they found room in their home to put me and my dear friend school teacher Nicole Sanderson, up for day, after day after day.

I will never forget your kindness and hospitality.

Our firefighters, Fire Control Centre and Emergency Operations Centres were fed by an army of volunteers.

Just down the road, the town famous for its dog and tuckerbox saw thousands of volunteers, led by Sue Houstein, making countless meals and snacks for more than a fortnight, feeding firefighters in places like Tumblong and Adelong, and making care packs for those who had lost everything.  

This energy was seen everywhere. In Tumut a team of volunteers responded to a call out for help to make meals at 9pm.

Within a few hours we had made 500 sandwiches.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Robert Donges and Wendy Silk of Donges IGA in Young.

Like so many businesses and individuals, they went above and beyond to do their bit, holding a Bushfire Appeal.

Donges IGA appealed for donations of non-perishable food, water, toiletries, baby needs, pet supplies and money for the communities of the South Coast and Snowy Valleys.

To date Donges IGA has distributed $5,000 to the Snowy Valleys recovery centre, $12,000 to the South Coast, $1,700 to Cobargo $4,000 to Eden and $2,000 to Tumblong in IGA gift cards.

They have also donated much needed water, food and toiletries valued at $20,000 to Tumut and Cobargo.

I was there to meet and unpack the trucks, what an incredible effort.

The town of Young is a small community, and this is not its only fundraising effort.

The Temora Rotary Club also gathered donations from Temora and surrounds.  

They managed to collect more than four trailer loads of donations which they took to the Tumut Boys Club.

That was a particularly special day because two of the cars were driven by my parents, Marie and Stephen.

In Junee Tearnna Mitchell, Madison Quinn and Jodie Coote, with the assistance of the Locomotive Hotel, organised a fantastic family day and fundraising event.

In Cootamundra, Justyn Smith put out a call for donations of non-perishable food and supplies to take to the evacuation centre at Bermagui.

When they ran out of bags to pack donations in and asked for more, around 2,000 were delivered by the community.

When they realised they didn’t have enough bottles to go with baby formula, another 200 were donated.

Less than 7,000 people call Cootamundra home.

Further down the road in Wagga, people came from far and wide to drop off goods, sort donations and help displaced people find a change of clothes, and food for their families.

The volunteers ranged from locals lending a hand, to Yazidi refugees who know first-hand what it is like to have to flee their homes.  

The people coming in to these centres were understandably shocked and shaken, but I was told a great story about one who hadn’t lost his sense of humour.

After being overcome with emotion at the amount of donations on offer, a man who had evacuated from Batlow stopped crying, smiled and said ‘imagine, all this help for us hillbillies’.

We have heard about the mental and emotional toll these fires have caused.

And we must ensure we have adequate mental health support moving forward.

People who would have normally had time to relax and recharge over January have instead given up their holidays to do what they could to help.

There are thousands, including in this chamber, who have come back to work after spending their summer dealing with this crisis.

I want to commend the EOC, FCC and Snowy Valleys Council who kept the residents of towns like Batlow, Tumbarumba and Tumut informed before, during and after the fires came through, and continue to deal with challenges of boil water notices, fallen and dangerous trees and helping property owners keen to get back on site.

Mayor James Hayes, Deputy Mayor John Larter, who is a paramedic himself, and General Manager Matthew Hyde are still working hard for their shire and have an enormous recovery ahead of them.

I also want to note the efforts of the Cootamundra-Gundagai Council, for their work in refilling water bombers, helping to create fire breaks and supporting their colleagues in the Snowy Valleys Council.

My commendations go to Superintendent Bob Noble, Inspectors Steve Radford (who very nearly lost his own home), Peter McClay, Adrian Telfer, John Achinger, Maggie Deal and others for their leadership in the EOC, evacuation centres and all the police who calmly did their jobs in and around fire grounds including Police Officers Mick Jones from Tumbarumba, Amy Zwickl from Batlow and Aaron Kilmurray, also from Batlow, who lost everything in the fire and still caught a looter who had stolen a car.

Their professionalism and courage is something we can all admire.

The efforts of the Murrumbidgee Local Health District are also noteworthy, the MLDH successfully relocated patients and residents of the Batlow Hospital and Aged Care facility to safety in Junee, and the residents from Tumbarumba MPS to facilities in West Wyalong, Temora and Narrandera, all wonderful health facilities in the Cootamundra Electorate.

The staff at these centres rose to the challenge of additional patients and went above and beyond to care for them.

The MLHD successfully returned all these evacuated patients home again.

That mammoth task was done with precision and care, and all staff should be praised for their skill in alleviating what must have been a distressing experience for those frail and vulnerable people.

Now we must head fearlessly in to the recovery phase.

Our National Parks rangers have worked as hard as many of the emergency services, with people like Matt White and Jake Shoard playing a huge role in the Tumut Fire Control Centre.

The task ahead of National Parks to help restore and rejuvenate our wilderness areas is enormous.

I acknowledge all of their efforts so far.

The outstanding work of BlazeAid is now well and truly underway, putting back thousands of kilometres of fencing and helping farmers get back to being the world-beating primary producers they are.

It would be impossible to name every person and every organisation that has gone above and beyond during this crisis.

The long efforts of recovery won’t always be front page news.

But those efforts will dictate the future of many communities.

We often say ‘regional communities are resilient’.

In the case of these fires, the term fits neatly.

These communities are already looking to the future.

Batlow is determined to hold CiderFest in 2020, thanks to community leader Ray Billings, despite extensive damage to the region’s orchards and apple production.

Cider makers like Ralph Wilson want people to remember the best of the region, not the worst.

I hope many of you join me for this fantastic event and in sampling the region’s delicious craft cider.  

There are months of hard work ahead, I urge you to help in any way you can.

Buy a ticket to Tumbafest, make sure your apples are from Batlow, and stop in at Gundagai on your way there! 

There are already people like James Zimmerman leading the Regrow Batlow movement working hard to get their towns back on their feet, and sharing stories about recovery.

Finally I want to thank the Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Deputy Premier John Barilaro, I can think of no better person to coordinate the state’s recovery and rebuilding.

I also want to thank the Minister for Emergency Services David Elliot, and the entire Cabinet for their strength in leadership.

Your leadership has helped us all serve our communities better.

I want to acknowledge the work of the Member for Bega Andrew Constance, the Member for South Coast Shelly Hancock, the Member for Wagga Wagga Dr Joe McGirr, MLC Bronnie Taylor, who has been personally touched by this disaster with her property at Yaven Creek being one of the first burnt, and all members who have been so deeply and personally impacted.

I want to thank the Premier for announcing an Inquiry in to these fires, and look forward to us all working together to adopt its recommendations.

We must do everything in our power to protect the lives of our people, our communities and our unique flora and fauna from these sorts of disasters.

This summer was frightening, the fact so many of us are sharing our condolences is a tiny glimpse of the impact on our state and the nation.

May we do everything to ensure it does not happen again.