Good Morning Prime Minister, From Kangaroo Island

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I woke this morning, on a property on Kangaroo Island, with a group of residents who have spent days fighting the fires, wondering when and if they’ll lose everything.

Some of them already have.

I spent yesterday following a ‘Farm Unit’ – an extraordinary network of local farmers, residents and friends who are working in coordination with fire officials to save their properties, businesses and homes.

They work independently from the various fire services, driving around the island in their utes with water tanks and pumps on the back, meeting in paddocks to plan their next assault on the fires.

A backburn in central Kangaroo Island yesterday. (IMAGE: Chris Graham, New Matilda)

Sometimes, like yesterday, they work hand in glove with the Country Fire Service. The unit I was with put out spot fires and mopped up from a backburn set to slow just one of the numerous fires still burning out of control.

When we came around one corner in the thick bush, it opened out to a long flat paddock. Sitting a few hundred metres away in the middle of a paddock, watching the burn and putting out spot fires, was a wall of farm units.

We drove over and joined the impromptu meeting, which was huddled around a small area of burnt paddock. They had their own maps and phones – and plans – before splitting off in different directions to continue the fight.

The ‘Farm Units’ of Kangaroo Island, local residents who’ve formed their own mobile firefighting units, pictured at central Kangaroo Island yesterday.

These are the men and women who Scott Morrison said last week weren’t firefighters. Morrison had arrived on the island shortly after two men – Dick Lang and his son Clayton – had died.

Morrison expressed gratitude that no lives on KI had been lost so far. When a local replied, “Two. We’ve lost two,” Morrison responded, “Two. Yes two, that’s quite right. I was thinking about firefighters firstly,” Morrison replied.

The Lang’s were part of the farm units. They died while returning from two days fighting the fires on the west of the island, where residents say there is almost nothing left.

I met a farmer last night who spent the day shooting his neighbours’ sheep in a paddock. They had 1,500. They have none left now. They also had 200 cows, and they’ve shot half of them as well.

I met the owner of a vineyard. Almost all the vines are gone, along with a house and numerous sheds.

The previous day, I watched a young man play guitar at a community gathering. His house had burned to the ground the night before. He fled with his children, and his guitar, then turned up to the barbecue to sing for the other locals.

A Kangaroo Island resident and a friend from Western Australia… one of the KI Farm Units. (IMAGE: Chris Graham, New Matilda)

Reflecting on all of this this morning, I wondered where Scott Morrison woke, and how much energy he was expending on the bushfire disaster.

No doubt, it was an enormous amount. If there’s one thing you can’t accuse Morrison of it’s laziness, the ‘Hawaii incident’ notwithstanding.

But I did get to wondering whether his idea of ‘recovery’ and that of the Kangaroo Island residents are the same. I don’t think they are.

I’ve lived and worked in the Canberra bubble. I think Scotty from Marketing’s energy would this morning have been focussed on a ‘recovery plan’ for his reputation. I think the meetings were most likely with his army of spin doctors, and the stories out this morning about his massive drop in the polls are evidence enough of that.

The anger on Kangaroo Island is palpable. While the residents were incensed at Morrison’s comments about the ‘non-deaths’ of their neighbours, their anger is more focussed on the broader response of the Commonwealth, State and local authorities, in particular the Mayor of Kangaroo Island Michael Pengilly, who was urging tourists to come to the island while it burned, and trolling people on social media – including the former US president Barack Obama – in a series of rants denying the existence of climate change.

Several local residents yesterday did acknowledge the work of the Army Reserves, who have been helping in the aftermath and can be seen all over the north and west island, the worst affected areas so far.

But even so, there’s a general sense of anger, particularly at the Prime Minister and his climate sceptic government.

One of the men I’m staying with has been running from fire to fire for 20-hours a day, for almost a fortnight, trying to save his property, and his those of his neighbours’.

“How much does it cost to do nothing?” he asked me this morning.

* New Matilda will continue to report from Kangaroo Island for the next few days. You can help us keep going by subscribing here, or making a one-off contribution here.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. Chris has won a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards for his reporting. He lives in Brisbane and splits his time between Stradbroke Island, where New Matilda is based, and the mainland.

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