Defence Bushfire Briefing
13 January 2020
BILTON: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I'd just like to take the opportunity this afternoon to give the next operational update for Operation Bushfires Assist 2019-2020.
I guess before I start by going into each of the States, I'd just like to give today's theme, if you like, operationally, is continuing to provide that immediate relief across New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. The principal regions of concern at the moment, from a fire fighting perspective, are the Alpine regions, both in Victoria and also in New South Wales and the ongoing challenges on Kangaroo Island. Principally, our firefighters in each of those States, the Rural Fire Service in New South Wales, the Country Fire Authority in Victoria, and the Country Fire Service in South Australia, continue to work to establish containment lines, improve fire breaks, and just prepare to deal with emerging threats. There are small outbreaks, they have been well publicised in the media more broadly and they're able to deal with those but just making sure we continue that consolidation work. And the ADF continues supporting that across all three jurisdictions. That principally relates to fire break building and also the movement of personnel to those various locations where fire fighters are required. That work continues both by rotary wing and also fixed wing aircraft.
I'd like to just start with Victoria. Mallacoota is in a circumstance now where 128 people have been able to move from Mallacoota by road and move out of that location. They can't gain complete access to Melbourne on the Princes Highway so they will be going on a circuitous route if they need to go back to the Melbourne area but they have been able to leave Mallacoota. We've provided escorts along with the Victorian Police and other agencies from the State of Victoria. We are using armoured vehicles as a means of protecting people moving through those routes. We believe that those armoured vehicles could sustain a tree fall and know that our people inside them are safe. So we continue to prove routes using that means but the routes are by no means open and it does require escorting of various commercial entities and personnel moving along various routes. So it is important we understand that the routes are not completely proven and not open.
That access work continues in Victoria, particularly along the Princes Highway and that route between Mallacoota and the Princes Highway itself and there are a number of other lateral routes around Orbost and Omeo as well where work continues. But it's important to stress it is still unsafe to just freely move along those routes and that's why we're providing that escort capability and also helping our commercial entities move through the area in a safe manner. The Victorian State authorities are just working through the timeframe that it may take to actually clear those routes fully to enable normal use of those key roads across Victoria.
Other significant issues in Victoria: Our Papua New Guinean friends will arrive in Victoria today, 100 engineers. Obviously one of the key functions in Victoria has been the engineering effort around route clearance and supporting fire fighters. We're deeply grateful to the Papua New Guinean Government and the Papua New Guinean Defence Force for providing this group of soldiers. They're going to play a key role throughout East Gippsland over the next couple of weeks.
I'd also just like to highlight there is increased distribution of Red Cross stores against Gippsland and the Alpine region in Victoria. This has been undertaken principally by aircraft and there's been a number, I guess, stories in the media about our friends from Singapore providing air mobility into a vast number of remote locations across East Gippsland and ensuring people have the basics, food, water, fuel for generators and just enabling their existence whilst routes get cleared and they are able to gain access to the broader infrastructure that is provided in the townships of East Gippsland.
Just moving to New South Wales, a couple of key areas of focus and I will start in the Alpine region, an area where fires continue to burn. There is a substantial fire break, I spoke about it yesterday, being built in the Bondo State Forest. That's going to be a 70 kilometre long fire break. I did say yesterday it was 1,000 metres wide. It was a miscommunication on my part. We were doing 1,000 metres a day were being cleared by the Australian Defence Force as part of a much broader effort. There are contractors and local council entities involved in that effort.
The reason or the purpose of that particular fire break is important. There is significant forests up there that we use for our timber industry in Australia, or significant part of our timber industry. Those fire breaks will help protect those plantations and it's particularly important economically to the township of Tumut.
Just also in that region, Tumut is becoming more of a logistics centre. So we continue to place more resources in there, including resources for general health and wellbeing of the community and along with Activity New South Wales, we are providing support to the Department of Human Services and this is just to enable us to get those popup teams into various remote localities so people can access their payments. And this system seems to be working well and I'm aware that the Department of Human Services is able to make instantaneous payments once people present and put forward their claims. So it is an important function that's been provided by the Department of Human Services for that immediate relief and certainly the Australian Defence Force is very happy to be able to help the Department of Human Services extend its reach and reach those people in more remote locations.
Furthermore in New South Wales, we are continuing to consolidate down in the South Coast area and also in the Hunter Valley. I guess the most important thing upfront from an engineering effort is just supporting the Eden chip mill. The logic behind that is just to enable us to help get that facility back online. It's an important economic contributor to Eden and we need to play a role, again, with State authorities to enable that capability to come back.
Moving to South Australia, I guess the key point in South Australia are there's two areas of focus. I'll start in Kangaroo Island. Two CH47s arrived literally moments ago. They are the Chinook heavy lift helicopters. They will commence operations moving fodder and supplies to the more remote parts of the island. We continue to undertake burials there, both of livestock and of wildlife. Unfortunately the toll for both has been significant and with the State authorities there are is a big job there, and of course the local farmers, to make sure that we deal with that quickly in terms of the hygiene effects that come as a result of those carcasses rotting. That work will continue as will the delivery of water and we're at 400,000 litres a day of potable water being provided to Kangaroo Island residents. That's both for human consumption and also for stock consumption.
Just in regards to Adelaide Hills, ongoing tasks up there of assisting local residents and farmers with infrastructure repair, clearance of areas that have been damaged but also water supply, has become an important role that we've undertaken in the last 24 to 48 hours as well. Again, this is principally water supply for stock in the various farms and properties across the Adelaide Hills.
Ladies and gentlemen, that's all I have for an update this afternoon. I'm happy to take any questions.
QUESTION: With Mallacoota, do you have any rough timeline for when full access will be available?
BILTON: No, we're trying to work through that with the Victorian Government. It could be weeks before it's absolutely safe and, of course, safety is the absolute priority in this case. So I'm really not in a position to second guess the authorities in Victoria but we will make every effort to support them to get it open as soon as possible.
QUESTION: Can you provide any more details on the roads you're using to escort vehicles?
BILTON: Yes. They're the normal roads but we're using those armoured vehicles to provide the safety and we're checking routes before we escort people through. So it's a very deliberate, slow process. But it is allowing people to get out and get home and obviously people need to get on with their lives in all aspects.
QUESTION: Do you have a figure for the number of reservists that are currently across the-
BILTON: Roughly about 2,700 reservists involved. I expect that figure to oscillate now around that number as people are relieved. We go through a relief and redeployment process and that will happen not just in our reserve capability but also in our full-time capability.
QUESTION: Do you have State by State breakdowns?
BILTON: Not with me but I can have them. I'll ask General Ellwood for tomorrow's press conference just to be prepared to give those numbers.
QUESTION: How many, like, vets do you think are currently?
BILTON: I'm aware of three at this stage and you may have seen a story on one of the channels regarding the vet in South Australia. I know he's been very busy, particularly with wildlife. Certainly they're not the only vets, by the way. There are the States and in their various jurisdictions have vets assisting with the mission as well.
QUESTION: And has the number of psychologists on the ground increased?
BILTON: Yeah, so we've increased to push psychologists out. We've also taken Department of Health representatives from each of the States out to various locations. So, again, it's a combination effort. And I think over the last few days, probably the last three, we've been spreading that effect quite broadly across each of the jurisdictions.
QUESTION: Do you expect the number of reservists in South Australia to increase?
BILTON: I think they've got another battle group, which is, sorry, emergency support force. It's about another 300 people ready to go and there's also an element down in Tasmania. So I'm expecting, you know, there will be 600 plus reservists in South Australia and Tasmania that will respond as part of this mission.
Okay, thank you very much. Have a good day.