Remarks at Meeting with US Firefighters in Washington DC

  Remarks at Meeting with US Firefighters in Washington DC

29 March 2009

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Australia — Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Brigadier General Blake Crowe, from the Department of Defence. Fire fighters of America, friends of Australia, friends of the United States.

We are here today in both sorrow and in friendship. With sorrow we remember the impact of the terrible fires in the Australian State of Victoria. More than 200 people lost their lives. Nearly half a million hectares – close to one million acres – of land laid to waste. More than 2000 homes destroyed, leaving more than 7000 Australians homeless.

We have experienced bushfires in Australia before, just as you have here in the United States. But Black Saturday in Victoria was something different, something more terrible, for us an unprecedented tragedy.

But we are also here in today to honour friendship. At our lowest point, when the fires were raging, our friends were there and we in Australia have no closer friend than the United States of America.

President Barack Obama was among the first leaders to call me, expressing sympathy and offering practical assistance. And this contact from the President – as with contact from other leaders from around the world – was a real boost to the morale of the Australian people and those in the fire affected areas in Victoria.

When I was visiting the burned out areas and talking to those who had fought the fires, and those who had lost family, friends or property, the fact that people from right across the world were there expressing their solidarity and offering their comfort, their support, their money and their men, that meant a lot, it meant a real lot.

So, on behalf of the people of Australia, thank you America. Thank you Agriculture Secretary Vilsack and Interior Secretary Salazar. We were very grateful for your joint efforts to deploy a team of 73 wild land fire-fighters from the US National Wildfire Coordination Group to Victoria. Most of them have now returned but a 13-person Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team is still in Australia.

Thank you also to the US Department of Defence for carrying to Australia on one of its aircraft new stocks of fire retardant, ensuring that Victoria remained fire ready. Brigadier General Crowe and Ms Jessica Powers – thank you for your support.

I also want to acknowledge the support of our friends in the United States State Department who have been just wonderful friends and though you Dan Clune, Charge d’Affaires at the Embassy in Canberra – you and your team in Australia and the State Department team here in Washington, thank you for making all that happen and happen so quickly.

And of course there are the people who were doing the real work, helping us out on the ground. Eric Bush, Tony Johnson and Bodie Shaw from the National Interagency Fire Centre in Boise, Idaho – as representatives of the 73 Americans that came to our assistance in Australia – I say a very deep personal thank you mate.

And can I also say thank you Brodie for working with the US Wildland Fire Fighter Foundation to raise money to help Australian fire fighters who lost their homes in the Victorian fires, and to benefit the family of fallen fire fighter Mr David Balfour.

I would also like to acknowledge the presence of Alan Goodwin, Assistant Chief Fire Officer from the Victorian Department of Sustainability & Environment. Alan helped coordinate cooperation between Victoria and the US authorities.

The truth is friends, we never know when fires are going to strike and the sorrow they bring along with the devastation. These fires in Australia challenged our souls, they challenged our humanity, they challenged our compassion, they challenged our courage. But all that was made more possible because we had so much by way of friendship and support and courage and determination from our friends in America.

I spent a lot of time in these fire affected communities. These are tough people, they are good people. But they themselves, and I know I speak on behalf of them, feel so much by way of gratitude to you our friends in America for what you did.

I was speaking before with the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior about the challenges you face here through fire. Your fire season, I’m advised, is going to get underway soon. I was also advised that in any given fire season you can be fighting up to 10,000 fires.

Can I just say to each of your fire fighters my personal appreciation and admiration for your sheer courage and professionalism. To put yourself in harm’s way in defence of others with something so awesome and so terrible as a wild fire or what we call a bush fire requires genuine courage and I salute you.

Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the people of Australia and the people of the State of Victoria in particular, I thank you our friends in the United States of America.


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