Pinery Bushfires

The Hon. J.S.L. DAWKINS (14:59): I seek leave to make a brief explanation before asking the Minister for Sustainability, Environment and Conservation a question regarding government assistance to local communities following the Pinery bushfires, particularly regarding efforts to mitigate soil erosion. Leave granted. The Hon. J.S.L. DAWKINS: On Saturday, I visited a number of localities in the Adelaide Plains and Lower North that were severely impacted by the terrible fire which started in Pinery on Wednesday. I would like to take this opportunity to recognise the incredible resilience and determination of local residents in the recovery efforts, which have of course already started. I would also like to put on the record my thanks to all the volunteer firefighters from South Australia and Victoria, as well as emergency services and government personnel, who assisted during the terrible fire and are now assisting in the significant recovery efforts that have begun. Of course, that thanks from the community is demonstrated in signs and other forms right across the region.

Unfortunately, as a result of that horrific fire, severe soil erosion is beginning to occur across much of this land. Already, the impacts could be seen as I drove through the area on Saturday along fence lines and road verges. Much of my criss-crossing of the fire ground, largely on unsealed roads, demonstrated that land that would normally not be at risk of wind erosion is now extraordinarily vulnerable. That fear particularly came to fruition in the high winds yesterday with the associated impacts on road traffic due to poor visibility.

Given this, my question to the minister is: will the minister update the council on what the Department for Environment, Water and Natural Resources, the two relevant natural resource management boards and other government agencies will be doing to assist farmers and local government bodies in mitigating the severe soil erosion that has occurred on the Adelaide Plains and Lower North as a result of the Pinery bushfires?

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER (Minister for Sustainability, Environment and Conservation, Minister for Water and the River Murray, Minister for Climate Change) (15:02): I would like to thank the honourable member for his most important question. In answering it, I might just give a little bit of background to update the chamber on what we know at this point in time in the aftermath of the fire. The Pinery bushfire started on Wednesday 25 November north-west of Mallala at approximately 12.15pm, under the influence of strong winds gusting to 90 km/h, which burnt approximately 40 kilometres through cropping land to the south-east before being impacted by a south-westerly wind change.

The fire escalated rapidly over the course of the day. Multiple Country Fire Service resources, including aircraft and two large air tankers from New South Wales, responded; however, due to the rate of spread of the fire, smoke and visibility suppression, efforts appeared to be largely ineffective in halting the spread of the fire. The fire burnt 82,500 hectares, with a 260 kilometre perimeter. The fires caused major damage in the areas of Owen, Hamley Bridge, Wasleys, Kapunda, Freeling, Tarlee and Greenock. The fire was declared contained at midday on Friday 27 November, transitioning from response to recovery. CFS crews are continuing to secure the perimeter of the fire and to work on hotspots. I am advised that, as of Monday 30 November, 82,600 hectares were burnt; 87 dwellings and approximately 400 outbuildings have been destroyed; 89 pieces of farm machinery and 98 vehicles have been ruined or significantly damaged by fire; and of course there is the tragic loss of life. Two people died in the fire, and a further 31 people have been treated for injuries, five of whom are still listed as critical. Our thoughts go to all those affected by the fires, their families and their friends. We are thinking of them. In terms of recovery efforts, they commenced on Wednesday 25 November. This includes the local recovery coordinator, Mr Monterola, meeting with the four affected local councils of Light, Clare and Gilbert, Mallala and Wakefield on Friday 27 November. A local recovery committee has been established and held its first meeting on Monday 30 November. Emergency relief centres were established on Wednesday 25 November and two continue to operate at the Balaklava Sports Club and the Gawler Recreation and Sports Club.

Over the weekend, staff from the Department of Community and Social Inclusion, in conjunction with Red Cross and pastoral care, began offering an outreach service, including home visits to meet those affected by the fires in their own home or at other gathering points. Five teams providing outreach and mobile relief centres are also being considered. The Gawler Emergency Relief Centre will remain open 24 hours per day until further notice, I am advised. As at 4pm on Monday 30 November, 1,162 people have been assisted in the emergency relief centres, and 13 families have been provided 24 nights of accommodation to date. Red Cross volunteers have been supporting relief activities in the emergency relief centres. Red Cross has received around 650 registrations and 165 inquiries through the Register.Find.Reunite. service as of Monday 30 November. Going to my agencies and their involvement in the recovery phase, it is estimated that the department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources have contributed approximately 2,100 Tuesday, 1 December 2015 LEGISLATIVE COUNCIL Page 2283 hours to the firefighting effort to date. CFS local resources are now being either rested or involved in local recovery efforts and, therefore, increased DEWNR resources have now been deployed to assist. Strike teams are involved in day and night shifts for the coming days, with approximately 41 staff involved. In terms of ecological damage, as I said, response activities are now transitioning to recovery. The focus at this first early stage is on community recovery; however, environmental recovery will form part of recovery plans that will be developed over the next few days. I am advised that at this stage, it is too early to know what the environmental damage from the fire has been. Assessments will be conducted as part of the recovery process, and DEWNR will liaise with other agencies involved in recovery and consider what action should be taken.

DEWNR will also undertake assessments of important habitat to determine the extent of environmental damage that has occurred. However, until the fireground has been declared safe, DEWNR are unable to do any detailed assessments of environmental damage to the area. However, a rapid assessment of important habitat and ecological communities has been undertaken by DEWNR. Habitat for the endangered pygmy blue-tongue lizard was only minimally damaged, I am advised, and it is therefore unlikely to have impacted that lizard. The critically endangered peppermint box woodland was impacted by the fire; however, the extent of the impact has not yet been determined. It is also possible that the fire impacted the critically endangered iron-grass natural temperate grassland, but again we await the assessment process. DEWNR will also be able to provide advice to landholders on land-management practices to assist in the rehabilitation of their land. Northern Hills, Coast and Plains District and the Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges region have commenced a local recovery group focusing on natural resources rehabilitation, including the rehabilitation of soil and creek beds. This group includes representation from PIRSA, EPA, Light and Mallala councils, Northern and York region, and other areas of DEWNR to ensure coordination of responses to issues that may arise. This group will work under the direction of the local recovery committee.

The local recovery group will provide support and engagement at community events, in particular working through ag bureaus and other primary industry organisations. DEWNR will be partnering with PIRSA in developing strategies to address significant environmental impacts, including mitigation of soil-erosion issues, impacts on watercourses and damage to areas and native vegetation.

DEWNR will also be involved in developing information and knowledge-sharing workshops in partnership with communities to identify other areas of concerns and needs. Once the fireground is declared safe by the CFS, DEWNR officers will assist in assessing impacts to natural resources investment in the region and planning for provision of assistance to landholders around rehabilitation. Recovery plans developed as part of this process will include recommendations for environmental recovery. As I said earlier, it is too early yet to know what the potential impact on waterways might be, but I understand that landholders are taking appropriate steps right now to minimise soil erosion, and DEWNR can provide advice on how best to do this.

In terms of the EPA, residents are returning to their properties following the recent fires and are now faced with a massive clean-up and waste disposal issue. The state government is waiving the waste levy for fire-affected councils and communities in recognition of the significant burdens associated with the recent events in the Mid North. The EPA is assisting farmers by offering advice on the disposal of waste, including animal carcasses where there have been significant stock losses. The EPA is working closely with other state government agencies and local government on these matters and has published advice on the disposal of burnt items from bushfires and other waste management issues on its website. The EPA has used social media and the Alert SA app as effective tools for the quick dissemination of its advice on the appropriate management and disposal of animal carcasses, fire-affected asbestos, impacted water contained in water tanks and dams, damaged septic tanks and their wastewater, damaged pesticide and chemical containers, and copper chrome arsenate treated timber. I have also asked my agency to work closely with PIRSA in the longer term to deal with issues that would relate to smoke taint for vineyards and winery industries.