***CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY***
I thank the Prime Minister for his words.
Mr Speaker, on the 7th of February 2009, Fern Langmead and her father and brother spent two hours in their neighbours’ dam, crowded in with frightened deer and kangaroos.
Around them, their world literally burned.
Huddled beneath an old woollen blanket, the Langmeads dived under the water every 30 seconds to douse the drifting embers.
Stella Reid, who ran the Wildhaven Wildlife Shelter, was on the truck with her CFA crew near St Andrews.
It was, in her words:
“An ocean of fire, a tsunami, rippling through.
Rolling off the top of the mountain and landing behind us.”
When Stella got back to the station, she saw her husband, covered in ash.
He said, “I’m so sorry, it’s all gone”.
Their home, their shelter, koalas, wombats, joeys in their pouches.
“An emptiness you’ve never felt in your life.
And a loss, a loss of something that you know you’ll never find again”.
For so many Victorians, the fire took it all.
Homes, sheds, fences, livestock.
It took pets, precious moments, special spots.
But Mr Speaker, these are the people who lived to tell the tale.
173 of our fellow people did not.
Families who tried to stay and fight, consumed by the flames.
Parents and children who tried to flee, trapped in their cars, chased-down by the so fast firefront.
So many bereaved.
But I think in particular of the story of the three Chinese students who perished in a picnic car park above Marysville.
Trapped in their car so far away from home and family.
I think of a little girl who has grown up to be a remarkable young woman.
She ran hundreds of meters from where the actual fire was, the heat was so severe though she suffered fourth-degree burns.
Her parents perished, her grandparents who I got to know became parents again, but unfortunately, they too now have passed.
Homes can be re-built, farms re-stocked, things replaced.
But seeing that roll call of the bereaved in the exhibition buildings last week, just reminds you of the sudden, and shocking loss of someone you love, the burden of that grief can never leave the bereaved.
For so many of the brave survivors, the 10 year anniversary is merely another raw reminder of what they have truly lost and the process of recovery.
A shock that sends them back to that day of panic and terror.
As David Barton, from Marysville put it.
“Once a year, we will be reminded of our fate, forever.”
It’s understandable and no wonder that some who left the ruins and the ashes, who moved away, have never returned.
Mr Speaker, as we look back a decade later, at the photos and the footage, the sky black with smoke, the horizon a string of flame, it does remain extraordinary to think, men and women, firefighters and volunteers, went off to fight that horror.
In some cases as their own properties were in flames.
Today again, we give thanks for the bravery of our emergency services personnel.
We salute the calm and compassion of charities, community groups who brought clothes and blankets and food and comfort.
The kindness of everyday Australians, children who sent their own toys to kids who had lost everything.
It is amongst that devastation and destruction that the essential goodness and generosity of Australians shone through.
I remember being then the Parliamentary Secretary for Bushfire Reconstruction, and some of what I saw will remain with me forever.
Firstly, in those days afterwards as those who visited saw the devastation, the ruin, it was a war zone of burnt-out cars and almost apocalyptic devastation.
And secondly, I also remember that while governments, state and federal and local, provided money and resources.
Most of the ideas and the initiative came from the communities.
The people who loved their 78 communities which were on fire.
The footy and cricket and tennis clubs, the Lions Clubs and Rotary, the school groups.
They picked themselves up, they looked after one another, they got each other through.
In Strathewen, the locals began meeting once a week, for a good cry, to share the stories, to embrace each other and to start the work of rebuilding – with beautiful, colourful new hand-made letterboxes for each of their homes.
The fires burned right up to the perimeter of the Steels Creek community centre – but the building was spared.
And in the months that followed, locals – many sleeping in portable classrooms while waiting for their blocks to be cleared – gathered for the movie nights, and the quizzes, the guest speakers and art classes.
But in closing, I would like to mention Carol and Dave Matthews.
I will never forget standing next to Carol as she stood in the wreckage of her home explaining to me how she had lost her son Sam - Sam would be 32 if he was with us.
She told me the story, she showed me photos of him.
How he was on the phone to her and as the fire approached and the noise of the exploding panes of glass and then no more.
Yet as difficult, as terrible as that is how strong is she and her husband, she is so remarkable that since then she has developed an immersive multi-sensory ‘bushfire experience’ to help educate and save lives in the future.
She’s so modest that she would squirm with the fact that I am going to mention that she was awarded Victorian local hero of the year in 2019.
It just reminds us all - and I speak of her but I could have spoken of literally thousands of others, that long after the cameras packed up and the national spotlight moves on, as it does, people have carried each other through the hard grind of starting from scratch.
There are so many of these stories – studies in courage, portraits in resilience, triumphs of the spirit.
We honour them all today.
We offer our respects to the memory of those lost.
And we send our heartfelt condolences to all those who still bear the burden of grief.