Is­land anger over re­build­ing de­lay


Kan­ga­roo Is­land gar­lic farmer Shane Leahy was a VIP guest at last week’s spe­cial sit­ting of the South Aus­tralian par­lia­ment about the bush­fire cri­sis that claimed his house and 88 oth­ers. He walked out in dis­gust.

“I felt like spewing up,” Mr Leahy says. “I didn’t need to sit there lis­ten­ing to all those clowns crap­ping on about what a great job we have all done.

“Sure the fires are out, but over here we are all just sit­ting and wait­ing to hear if some­one is going to come and clean up what’s left of our houses. They talk about mov­ing on but look­ing at this all day is one hell of a re­minder.”

A full 43 days af­ter los­ing his home while fight­ing fires else­where, Mr Leahy is liv­ing in a do­nated car­a­van parked in front of the burned-out re­mains of his house near Parn­dana, in the is­land’s cen­tre. His is one of the 89 homes lost in the fires, al­most all of which still lie in ru­ins, with no word on when the bull­doz­ers will ar­rive. People have had enough.

Iso­la­tion has al­ways been a bless­ing and a bur­den for Kan­ga­roo Is­land — but in the wake of the fires it seems noth­ing but a curse. Res­i­dents are be­com­ing de­spon­dent and an­gry as they see im­ages from the NSW south coast of burned houses and busi­nesses be­ing lev­elled to their foun­da­tions and pre­pared for re­build­ing.

On KI — which is ac­ces­si­ble only by air and ferry, has few builders and labour­ers, and where a stag­ger­ing 215,000ha was burned out — the clean-up process is be­ing de­scribed by res­i­dents as tor­tu­ously slow. It has been wors­ened by the fact many dwellings are old set­tler-sol­dier homes filled with as­bestos, mak­ing the clean-up more time-con­sum­ing and per­ilous.

“People are start­ing to crack,” Mr Leahy said. “I’ve been strug­gling a bit. We hear a lot about men­tal health but it’s pretty hard when the first thing I look at when I have my cof­fee out­side the car­a­van ev­ery morn­ing is the burntout rub­ble of my house.”

It’s the same story at Mid­dle River in the is­land’s north, where Geoff Iversen and his wife Priscilla had the unfortunat­e hon­our of own­ing the first of the 89 home to be lost, razed on De­cem­ber 21 be­fore the gi­gan­tic Flin­ders Chase fire ex­ploded into life.

The Iversens had been liv­ing with all their pos­ses­sions in a tem­po­rary shed as they built their dream home on the same block, but the fire spot­ted and burned their shed to the ground, tak­ing ev­ery­thing they owned with it.

“Right from the out­set there was this im­pres­sion given that the whole thing was going to be cleaned up, but that hasn’t hap­pened,” Mr Iversen said.

“The army came out and said that they couldn’t do it, they are

busy do­ing all sorts of other stuff, but we just don’t know who is. It’s do­ing my head in. We want to put this be­hind us but we’ve got this great big bloody burned­out shed right in front of us. It’s re­ally get­ting up my nose.”

The is­land’s La­bor MP, Leon Bignell, lashed out at the state gov­ern­ment over the de­lays. Mr Bignell has been per­son­ally af­fected by the fires. His elec­toral of­fi­cer on the is­land, Priscilla Thomas, is mar­ried to Mr Iversen, and a friend, vol­un­teer fire­fighter Garth Miller, 37, was killed in a boating ac­ci­dent on the River Mur­ray on Jan­uary 15, his first day off af­ter two weeks fight­ing the fires.

While nor­mally based on the main­land, Mr Bignell has spent most of the past month on Kan­ga­roo Is­land and just re­turned from four nights in Parn­dana sleep­ing in a swag. He has be­come mates with Mr Leahy, who had two dogs, Socks and Lucy, and their seven pups at his home when the fire hit. Some­how all nine dogs sur­vived. Mr Leahy has gifted most of the pups to friends on the is­land and given them bush­fire-themed names. There’s Ash, Smokey, and Paws, so named be­cause his paws were singed by em­bers. Mr Leahy also gave a pup to Mr Bignell, who named him Dusty.

“At the lo­cal level people are re­ally pulling to­gether but they need more sup­port from above,” Mr Bignell said. “The whole thing is so bloody hor­ri­ble. I haven’t seen sad­ness and des­per­a­tion and frus­tra­tion and anger like this ever be­fore. What’s mak­ing it worse is that people just need straight an­swers, they need a re­as­sur­ance that things are mov­ing ahead, and they have been in the dark.”

Kan­ga­roo Is­land Mayor Michael Pengilly, a for­mer state Lib­eral MP, said the mood on the is­land had de­te­ri­o­rated but in­sisted it had not been the fault of the state gov­ern­ment. He blamed the bu­reau­cracy for a lack of co-or­di­na­tion and said a break­through came this week when the state and fed­eral gov­ern­ments said they would pick up the full cost of the cleanup. “People have had enough and want it sorted but hope­fully now with that an­nounce­ment we will see some real move­ment,” he said.

‘I haven’t seen sad­ness and des­per­a­tion and frus­tra­tion and anger like this ever be­fore’


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