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’
LEON BIGNELL LABOR MP