‘Why are we still struggling?’ ask Australia bushfire victims

When the Australian bush went up in flames over the southern hemisphere summer, the world pulled together in support.

The Australian government established a two billion Australian dollar ($1.3bn) fund to assist fire-affected communities and wildlife.

But now, several months down the line, as a royal commission this week began its investigation into what happened, many communities are little further forward than they were back then. People are still living in tents, waiting on loans, unable to rebuild their lives.

The fires ravaged Gloria Sutherland’s property in Yowrie, in southern New South Wales, at three in the morning, sweeping into the valley from the ridges above and into her back paddock. Nearby towns were hit too.

“It just had no mercy for anybody,” she said.

Sutherland recalls fireballs the size of her hand and bigger being spat out by the blaze as it raced towards her home.

“Where the fire went into our laundry it broke a window,” Sutherland said. “The fire actually smashed a pane of glass … the balls [were] like rocks being thrown.”

No one came to help the 63-year-old and her husband, Peter, 67, not even the fire brigade, because they were so far out of town. It was “just the two of us, two old people”, she remembers.

They defended their house until they ran out of water and then retreated inside, with nothing left but hope.

Come together

As pictures emerged of the scale of the devastation, money poured in for those affected. Hundreds of millions of dollars were raised for bushfire relief across the country.

Among other charities, the Australian Red Cross raised 216 million Australian dollars ($142.8m), the Salvation Army 41 million Australian dollars ($27.1m) and the St Vincent de Paul Society 22.9 million Australian dollars ($15.1m).

A number of celebrities, sportspeople and businesses joined the cause too.

In January, the Australian government announced its package for bushfire recovery, covering a range of initiatives such as mental health, local tourism, and grants for bushfire-affected farmers.

But in bushfire-hit communities, people say they have little to show for it.

Dan Tarasenko lives in Quaama in southern New South Wales, one of the areas that was worst-hit by the fires.

“I have a house, not much else,” Tarasenko told Al Jazeera.

Half of his sheds are gone, half his livestock and all of his fences. Just about everything is damaged to some degree.

He says that the government has been slow to deliver support.

Tarasenko applied for two government loans but on Monday – after a 13-week wait – was told that one of his applications had been rejected. The other was rejected on Tuesday after seven weeks of waiting.

Even if his loans had been approved he would still have had to wait for the funds to come through.

“[They] come in after the fact so we’re looking at six, eight months of lost income,” he said.

Without the loans he applied for, Tarasenko has no way to restart his business because only government loans allow farmers to use the money to replace livestock.

He is appealing but has no idea how long the process could take.

“I’m fighting publicly,” he told Al Jazeera, saying he had highlighted his case to local politicians. “We are giving evidence to the royal commission on Thursday. What else can we do but keep fighting.”

Many other fire-affected communities are facing similar struggles.

“[The government] want[s] financials, they want security, they want details … I can understand it but it is turning people away,” Tarasenko said. “and then delays, [people think] … why bother?”

Charities have also come in for criticism amid accusations that they have only delivered a small proportion of what they raised.

As of the first week of May, the Australian Red Cross had used 40 percent of the money it had received since January, and The Salvation Army had spent 46 percent. The two are among Australia’s biggest civil society groups and received a large share of the funding.

The St Vincent de Paul Society, which was one of the first on the ground in the aftermath of the devastation, has spent more than 13.5 million Australian dollars ($8.9m) – 59 percent of its donations.

The Red Cross says delays have been because of the large numbers of fraudulent applications they received, but also because they want to focus attention on long term recovery.

“Typically … for people to really get back to functioning in what we might call a “new normal” will take… anywhere up to … five to 10 years,” said Andrew Coghlan, Head of Emergencies for the Australian Red Cross.

“We’ve allocated a small portion of the funds to be able to run our recovery programme  … and we’ll have people out on the ground for the next three years.”

There has also been speculation that charities have used the donations they received for administrative costs or initiatives other than the fires.

Related Articles

Back to top button