Kangaroo Island has been one of the worst hit regions during Australia’s bushfire crisis. Lightning strikes on 20 December ignited tinder-dry fuel across the heavily forested Ravine area in the west of the Island. Fanned by strong winds over the next few days, the fire destroyed the Flinders Chase National Park, the luxury Southern Ocean Lodge and multiple neighbouring properties. Additional fire spread over the next week or so, heading east to the populated areas of the Island. At the height of the crisis, the entire Island was under emergency warnings and travel to the region was restricted to emergency personnel only.
Now that the fires are under control, the community is assessing the damage. It’s taken a heavy toll. It’s estimated that as many as 100,000 head of livestock have died, along with countless native animals. The plantation timber industry has been all but wiped out, losing 95% of their trees at a cost of around $1 billion. Tragically, the Island’s unique Ligurian bee industry was also hard hit, with around a third of the hives destroyed. There are no other pure colonies of Ligurian bees left in the world.
The human toll is also severe. Two people lost their lives when their car was caught in the blaze. Many others have been injured. And for those who have escaped with their health intact, the long road to financial recovery looms ahead. Kangaroo Island is highly dependent on its tourist industry, but the entire tourist season was effectively cancelled as visitors fled the island or cancelled bookings in droves. Accommodation operators, wineries, gift shops and artisan producers haven’t been able to sell their goods and services, making for a long barren year ahead.
Among all this doom and gloom, though, there is more than a little hope. Colin Hopkins of Elders Kingscote says the response to the crisis has been nothing short of fantastic. “You wouldn’t believe the number of people who’ve come over to help,” he says. “We’ve got the army over here helping, and BlazeAid, of course. But there’s also a huge silent army of people coming over with their tools and their utes to help out friends living on the Island.”
That community spirit also means there’s nobody left looking for a home. “There were about 70 houses destroyed,” Colin says. “Of those, about half were secondary residences and holiday homes, so they weren’t occupied anyway. The other half are families who got displaced. Some have found rentals, but there’s also been a tremendous amount of goodwill from property owners. People who own holiday homes have rung us to say they’d like to let people move in for a few months while they get their insurance sorted. A couple of people who were thinking of selling have decided to keep the place for a bit longer so that they can put a roof over someone else’s head.”
And what about local businesses?
“Some of them have been hard hit,” says Colin. “Businesses that rely on the package tours especially, because so many of those were cancelled. But if you walk down the main street of Kingscote, it looks as busy as ever. There are lots of day visitors, plus the Army and BlazeAid volunteers. They don’t work around the clock, so in their spare time they’re visiting the cafes and the wineries. There might even be as many people as usual — it’s just a different demographic!”
Jack Ingram of the celebrated Sunset Food and Wine bistro, overlooking American Beach, says that things are starting to look up. “The fires hit at pretty much the peak of the peak season”, he says. “It made a huge difference. We were at least 50% down on last year through that month.”
Although Penneshaw was never in danger, the knock to the tourist season has taken its toll here as well. “We usually have at least one of the Sealink tours come through, so that’s a big group of customers, and we haven’t seen a single one since the fires,” Jack says. “Plus there were five days when the SA Government was telling people not to come to the Island at all unless they were emergency services crew. We get a lot of business from people who have come off the ferry, so that was a huge hit.”
While insurance might cover some of the loss of income, it’s a hard road back up. Nonetheless, there are strong signs of recovery. “This week we’re pretty much back to normal capacity,” Jack shares. “Next weekend, the long weekend, that’s fully booked. We’re getting there.”
If you want to go and see Kangaroo Island for yourself, now’s the ideal time. “It’s actually a bit greener than usual at this time of year, and it’s looking lovely,” says Jack.
Now more than ever, Kangaroo Island needs your support. Come and sample gorgeous local food and wine, meet the wildlife and explore the area. For more information on how you can help, visit the #BookThemOut campaign and start planning your next holiday today!