A week ago I sat in the Penneshaw pub and wrote my previous blog on camping on Kangaroo Island, reflecting on all that I’d seen in the preceding days. Particular highlights had been five nights in Flinders Chase National Park where the Superb Fairy-wrens flitted around our feet and Tammar Wallabies munched in the undergrowth beside the path to the toilet block, and taking respite from the 35+ degree heat at the visitor’s centre at Flinders Chase. As well as a beautiful walk in Ravine des Casoars. At the time I was already planning on what to write this week, because I’ve challenged myself to write a weekly blog post to share the ups and downs of a writer’s life. But something more important than what I’d planned needs to be written.
We’d spent a wonderful week at the western end of Kangaroo Island and had headed to the eastern coast before New Year’s Eve, not because we’d been concerned about bushfires but that’s what we’d planned on doing.
We were aware that on 30 December, last Monday, a cool change came in, and with it came a thunderstorm that sparked a bushfire in Ravine des Casoars. We watched its progress on the CFS app, hoping that the hardworking CFS on the ground and with air cover they would get it under control. Slowly it grew, northward, and destroyed tree plantations but I was hoping it wouldn’t go south, because that was into the heart of Flinders Chase National Park, and the precious bush that we had walked through, where we had come across trundling echidnas, startling goannas and stood staring at bubbles in the waterholes willing one of the 200 platypuses to show itself. Where black cockatoos had called their mournful call above us and we’d squinted into the sun, hoping to catch a glimpse of a pair of endangered Glossy Blacks.
But slowly the fireground grew. On Thursday, January 2, locals told us the ever increasing smoke in the eastern end of the island was due to backburning to create a firebreak in the National Park because the next day was going to be bad – hot, windy and then with a cool change and change in the wind direction coming in the afternoon.
The first we knew of how bad it had got was when we returned from the pub after dinner and noticed the lights on at the Penneshaw oval and a few vehicles driving in. It was a bushfire refuge – one of two on the island.
We soon found out that the western end of the island had been evacuated – 200 people from a caravan park, and other accommodation including the Southern Ocean Lodge – a top end resort adjacent to Flinders Chase.
We started looking at the CFS app again. The whole western half of the island was under a red alert – leave now, and the rest of the island had a watch and act alert.
We ensured all our guy ropes and tent pegs were secured because the wind was already crazy and went to bed.
On the morning of the 4th we took down our tent as planned and noticed a cruise ship in the bay – surely no overseas tourists were going to flood the island today? No, they were not coming ashore but instead had offered to assist with evacuation.
Wandering around Penneshaw that morning was weird. We kept watching news broadcasts and saw with horror that most of Flinders Chase had been burnt, including the Visitors Centre and probably the nearby Rocky River campground where we’d camped a week before. What of the wrens, the wallabies, the mischievous possum, growling koalas and kangaroos? My eyes tear up every time I think of it.
Twenty to thirty vehicles, caravans and people in tents had taken refuge on the oval and the staff at the nearby café could only provide a limited menu and seemed a bit off hand. But then they had been up until 2.30 in the morning helping with the evacuation.
But in my head it was like a bad dream. Even though I read what it said on the app about how much of the island was fire affected, I didn’t want it to be real. I wanted to be able to go back to where I’d been last week to see it all again – to see the Superb fairy-wrens which had delighted me so.
It was so well organised, this evacuation – people queued up patiently asking about getting a spot for their cars and caravans on the ferry. Ferry staff guided vehicles into the ‘standby’ lane if they had no ticket, sheep transports rumbling onto the ferry, empty trucks coming back over, trailers full of water arriving for the CFS, the CFS donation jars in cafes overflowing, the Sealink CEO coming into the ferry terminus to make sure everything was going smoothly…
And then we finally saw the television broadcasts of the South Coast of NSW and Victoria’s Gippsland where it was like midnight in the middle of the day, where families escaped from the fires in boats pushed out into the sea, the Navy came to rescue them by sea and air.
What comes to mind is John Marsden’s ‘Tomorrow, when the war began’ but this is today and this was caused by us. And the politicians are still not taking responsibility, or taking a lead.