How do we put into words the scale of the bushfire catastrophe we have experienced over the past few months? How do we describe the agonising loss felt by those who have lost loved ones or their homes? How do we convey the pain, fear and shock experienced by communities affected by fire and the terror of families huddled together on beaches when the sky was heavy with smoke and ash? How do we take stock of all that we have lost, or the impact on our mental health and local economies? How do we measure the collective trauma that will be felt for generations? How do we thank the volunteers who have kept us together when so often it has felt like we are falling apart?
The Premier and others have outlined the numbers that give some shape to this tragedy, such as the 33 people who lost their lives across the country, including eight firefighters, three of whom were volunteers with the Rural Fire Service. Countless more people have been injured. There have been 1,000 bush and grass fires, 5.5 million hectares have burned, 2,432 homes have been lost and 1,021 more homes were damaged. More than one billion native animals have died and some species have been pushed to the brink of extinction—the koala is just one of them.
Sydney has experienced over 81 consecutive days of dangerous and poor air quality. The public health consequences are yet to be known. Weeks, perhaps months, of the worst of the bushfire season is yet to come. I do not think the numbers quite tell the story. It is hard to capture the extent of those fires because of the emotional toll it has taken on us all. The fires have changed us and they are still changing us. It is really important to acknowledge that this catastrophe is still unfolding. Communities are fighting fires as we speak. Volunteer fireys will be out on the fields again in the weeks to come. For months to come volunteers from local clubs and community groups such as the Salvation Army and Red Cross will be making meals and looking after RFS fireys and those who have lost their homes.
Home owners who have been spared the worst may continue to lie in bed on hot nights refreshing the Fires Near Me NSW app, waiting for advice. Business owners and farmers will be fighting to save their livelihoods every day. This week we need to acknowledge that our State is still burning around us. However, recovery is underway. Of course, it will be sometime before people are back on their feet. Thirty-three people lost their lives in those terrible fires and 25 of them were from our great State of New South Wales. They include: Robert Lindsey, Gwen Hyde, Vivian Chaplain, George Nole, Julie Fletcher, Barry Parsons, Chris Savva, Russell Bratby, Robert Salway, Patrick Salway, Laurie Andrew, John Butler, Col Burns, David Harrison, John Smith, Ross Rixon, Michael Campbell, Michael Clarke and others yet to be identified.
Their stories are stories of bravery, resilience and deep humanity. Newlyweds died together fighting to defend their home. Women died fighting to save their beloved animals. Farmers died fighting to save their cattle. Neighbours died helping neighbours. A grandfather died while trying to escape the fire to return to his family. Each of them are loved and profoundly missed. They are mothers and daughters, fathers and sons. I also acknowledge the tragic passing of Courtney Partridge-McLennan who died from an asthma attack brought on by the toxic smoke that has hung over our towns and cities for months. Three of those who died were volunteer firefighters: Samuel McPaul, Deputy Captain Geoffrey Keaton and Andrew O'Dwyer. Those brave men were the best of us. They gave their lives to protect communities at their most vulnerable.
Together we are united in our grief and we honour their sacrifice. They leave behind loved ones, including small children. Their deaths have reverberated across our nation. None of us will ever forget those moving images of Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons pinning a medal of bravery on the chest of Harvey Keaton, the 19-month‑old son of Geoffrey Keaton. No image captures our collective grief more than a boy standing in for his beloved father. Three United States aviators died in a crash in the Snowy Mountains. They were Captain Ian H. McBeth, First Officer Paul C. Hudson and Flight Engineer Rick A. DeMorgan Jr. They travelled from the other side of the world to protect us. I am sure they knew the risks but I doubt they would have known the value of their sacrifice or the extent to which they have moved an entire nation.
I have spoken about our collective grief. I have spoken about our shock and shared horror as these fires have gripped our State. But I also want to speak about our hope and optimism. Since October we have seen remarkable acts of bravery. We have seen compassion and generosity as people rallied together. In the great Australian tradition, we have seen humour, inspiration and gratitude. Over 72,000 volunteer firefighters are serving in more than 2,000 brigades across the State. Nearly all of them have been shoulder to the wheel fighting these fires for months. They are exhausted. Let us never forget the images of volunteer firefighters collapsed on the side of the road after hours spent battling ferocious fires. Many spent time away from their families over Christmas and the summer holidays. Many fought fires while they lost their own homes. Every day they put themselves at risk to protect their communities. What greater service could citizens of New South Wales give than that offered by those men and women?
They are led by a remarkable man, Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons. Time and again, as dark as it got, we could find some solace in the fact that a man of his calibre and capacity was in charge. I had the pleasure of meeting the commissioner at the RFS Homebush headquarters back in November. We discussed the challenges of running an organisation made up of over 70,000 volunteers. Let me say that with Commissioner Fitzsimmons what you see is what you get. Whether you meet him in person or see him on the television screen, he is clearly a man of decency and conviction, driven by a deep commitment to keep us safe. Thank you, Commissioner Fitzsimmons.
Brave RFS volunteers were joined by volunteers from many organisations across our State—the Red Cross, the Salvos and WIRES as well as local clubs and organisations. These people have made meals, run evacuation centres and cared for animals and pets. They have helped out at medical centres and hospitals. They have been there as a friendly ear or as a shoulder to cry on. They have shared stories and given people hope for a better future. On behalf of the Opposition and as the shadow Minister for volunteers, I offer my deepest thanks to everyone who has done their bit through these tough times. In the face of these catastrophic fires, which have shown us just how fragile we are, all of you who have volunteered have given us hope. We are indebted to you and I send my deepest and most heartfelt gratitude to you and to your families.
Some like to talk up so-called differences between the city and the bush. I have never felt this was real. I think people in the city and the bush hold a deep affection and affinity for one another, and I think the response to these fires has truly demonstrated that. In my electorate of Summer Hill and across Sydney's inner west, residents have been doing whatever they can to support fire-affected communities reeling from the ongoing devastation of this unprecedented bushfire season. This weekend Inner West Council is holding an RFS fundraising concert, pledging $50,000 to the RFS and fire-affected communities. Our local mayor, Darcy Byrne, has led a push for metropolitan councils to come together and coordinate support in whatever way they can for regional and bushfire-affected communities.
Local SES units, including Marrickville and Leichhardt in my neck of the woods, have been assisting with the firefighting and recovery efforts. Over the holidays volunteers at WOW Food Pantry collected food and clothing donations from hundreds of residents to be transported to isolated fire-affected communities. Local musicians have been rallying together to hold pro bono concerts to support the RFS hosted by Marrickville Bowling and Recreation Club, where local artists raised over $4,000 one night. Cafes like Outfield have held events and donated their day's takings, and local hospitality workers across the inner west have been donating their tips to the RFS, including at the Marrickville Hotel and the Ritz.
Multicultural communities across Australia have also made huge contributions to this volunteer effort to support the RFS and those communities in need. The St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Marrickville hosted a fundraising concert and raised over $8,500. The Sydney Portugal Community Club has been running a community fundraising campaign. Dozens of volunteers from Sydney's Sikh community travelled to the South Coast to make meals and provide a helping hand at the Milton Showground. In fact, Sikh groups across New South Wales have raised in excess of $20,000. During the height of the fires in December and January the Australian National Imams Council called all Muslims to action. The Afghan community group donated $18,252 to the RFS. Truckloads of food and supplies were sent by Human Appeal Australia, Lighthouse Community Support and the Australian Islamic Mission to Cobargo in early January. The New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies raised tens of thousands of dollars for the bushfire efforts. In November Sydney's Chinese community raised over $390,000 at a gala dinner. Chinese community groups have continued to raise and distribute money to regional communities affected by fire since then. These are just some of the stories of multicultural communities coming together to support vulnerable people affected by these fires, and I believe just another wonderful example of the hope and optimism that has shone through in these dark times for our State.
I also address one of the strongest emotions evoked by these fires in our community, and that is profound anger. If these bushfires do not wake us up to the urgency and existential threat of climate change, I honestly do not know what will. People are exasperated. They are furious. I will not be told that talking about climate change diverts or disrespects the tragic losses these bushfires have brought. Those in fire-affected communities deserve support and action, not hollow words, forced handshakes and delays from government, just as all of us deserve to be led by politicians who are prepared to face up to the threat of climate change and stare down those who get in the way of action. It is fact that these bushfires have been the worst on record and they come in the middle of the worst drought on record. It is fact that climate change is making our climate drier and hotter. It is fact that if we do not act on climate change now, these fires will be the new normal.
Given all the horror we have experienced, we deserve nothing less than frank honesty and action on climate change. Time is up on climate denial. Time is up on empty rhetoric and climate stunts too. We will work together to rebuild communities. Let us at the same time rebuild the quality of public debate. Let us work together to make meaningful change when it comes to phasing out coal and fossil fuels, to embrace the new dawn of renewable energy, and to reduce our emissions and give our kids a real future—not one marked by seasons of fire and smoke and flood and fear.
There is so much to say, but I believe there are some more questions that we need to ponder. How will we remember the summer of 2019-20 and where do we head next? What will the Australia we leave our children and grandchildren look like? We have been sorely tested these past months, but our great Australian qualities have pulled us through: resolve, resilience, humour, humility and incredible generosity. Most of all, we have been moved by our common humanity and our essential drive to support one another and to have each other's backs. Let us grieve together. Let us rage together. Let us express our deepest gratitude together. But most of all, let us never forget these past few months, because we need to work together and fight side by side to make sure it never happens again.