E & OE
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: To examine the extent of the damage and the Australian Government's response. I'm joined now by David Littleproud. He's the minister responsible for natural disasters and emergency response in Australia. Minister, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us. Could you just give us a sense of where you are now in the fight against this fires?
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah look, I'm currently in Parliament House in Canberra in our nation's capital. We're currently working up our response to the recovery but also to the situation that's unfolding over the weekend. Again, we're concerned about worsening weather conditions. But later today after the Prime Minister and I meet with our national security committee, we'll be going out and visiting a number of communities nearby, less than a couple of hundred kilometres away from Canberra, who have borne the brunt of these fires only in the last couple of days. And we'll be going to look at what's needed in terms of recovery, but we're tackling this on two levels. One in terms of recovery, these fires have been going since September in some parts of the country and they're still going. So some parts, we've got to help with the recovery. Others we're still fighting, so it's multi-tasked at the moment in terms of how we're responding to this disaster.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Many Americans here were surprised to learn that the vast majority of firefighters in Australia are volunteers. Given the vastness of these fires, do you have enough manpower and enough equipment to fight these fires adequately?
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah look, we're very proud as a nation, there's 200-odd thousand volunteer firefighters. That's nearly 1 per cent of our population and for them to be able to put themselves out there, to put their safety on the line for our fellow Australians says a lot about our nation and we're proud of that. And that comes because we're dispersed- we're geographically dispersed into a number of small towns right across this vast continent and so we obviously make sure that they're equipped with the best tools that are required and complemented by aerial assets that we lease, much from the northern hemisphere. We obviously work closely and in fact we've got nearly 250-odd firefighters from the United States and Canada here now. And in fact I met them in Sydney Airport, some of them, when they came in only about three weeks ago and there's another cohort that came in only in the last 48 hours.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: We know that there are thousands of people that have been evacuated from their homes and their towns. Where are those people living right now and what's your sense of how long they have to stay away from home?
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well obviously we try to repatriate them back into their homes as quickly as we possibly can and that comes after safety checks, because a lot of the roads are lined with trees and those trees have lost a lot of their integrity and they have to be checked meticulously by arborists and firefighters. And then as soon as that's done, we try to get people back to their homes because that's the best way to recover, to rebuild lives, is to get them back to their homes. Those that unfortunately own the 2000-odd homes that we've lost so far, those people are being looked after in centres. But more so, they're being looked after by family and friends. Our insurance agencies are coming in and making sure that they're acting swiftly in terms of recovery. They- most of those homes are insured. Those that aren't, then obviously we're a rich nation, we're a proud nation and making sure we look after one another. But invariably most are looked after by family and friends. We're close-knit communities because a lot of those towns that have borne the brunt of this are in very small rural areas where everyone knows everyone and you look after one another and that's what's been happening. That's the Australian way and we're damn proud of it.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: We heard in that report that we just played from the people who do live in those rural areas who say they understand that it's important to move people into the cities and to be able to protect those denser areas, but that's got to be an enormous challenge for you as well, just trying to protect people who are spread over such a vast geographic area.
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: It is and invariably that's why a lot of the rural firefighters are volunteers, landholders themselves in fact. Some of them and sadly, tragically three of those volunteer firefighters have lost their life during this event. They've given the ultimate sacrifice to their community and their nation while defending someone else's life and someone else's property. But invariably a lot of these rural firefighters are volunteers. They're professionals but they're volunteers and a lot of their homes they protect by making sure they're prepared. And this in fact is one of the most severe fires in our nation's written history. The fact that while tragically we've now lost 27 lives and just over 2000 homes, without the professionalism of our full-time firefighters and our voluntary firefighters, this would have been a much more severe event in terms of loss of life and property. So we're proud of what's happened, but we're obviously cognisant of continuing to do better in making sure that we're prepared, but also that our recovery is building back better. That the infrastructure that we build back is better, it's more resilient and it makes sure that our people are more resilient and safer for future events.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Going forward, climate change models have predicted exactly really what is unfolding: longer droughts, hotter heatwaves. They make the conditions ripe for these kinds of wildfires. Are you all prepared, as some here in the US like in California have been saying, that this could be the new normal for you? That these kinds of wildfires could achieve this level of intensity year after year after year? Are you all ready for that?
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah well look, what I'm most proud of in terms of our fire commissioners from all our states is the meticulous planning they undertook well before this event. When I became Emergency Services Minister in June last year, the first advice I got was that the season was going to be earlier, it was going to be more severe, it was going be protracted for longer periods. They were right and they prepared and they collaborated with you guys in the Northern Hemisphere and that's one thing that this has become a global effort and I think we should be very proud that we've been able to work collaboratively. And our research and development has collaborated between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres and our assets are and the most important asset is our human capital and we'll continue to do that. And I think that's where our continual R&D in making sure that we're prepared for these events in the future, whether it be fires or here in Australia cyclones and floods is world's best and we'll continue to work and make sure that we get our best science and the best science from around the world to make sure we keep our people safe. But the big part of it is about building back better. Building the infrastructure to a better standard to withstand bigger events in the future and that's what the commitment in terms of the Federal Government, working with our states in recovery will be about, is making sure that we look at it from every aspect, understanding how we adapt to a change in climate and how we do that better into the future in preserving life and property.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Alright, Minister David Littleproud, thank you very much for your time and best of luck to you fighting these fires.
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thank you and can I just say, the interest that we've had from all around the world is more important that money itself. To know that we're not alone has meant so much to the Australian people and I thank you for so much of your interest in what's happening here.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Well thank you and again, best of luck to you all.
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thank you.
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