Epic twist in tale of true grit and garlic
When he discovered his home had been lost in the Kangaroo Island bushfires, Shane Leahy feared he'd lost even more - the realisation of an unlikely dream he shared with two mates, whose lives had been cut tragically short.
But there was no time for rest or reflection at the charred ruins of his home on January 3.
The fires were still raging, so the farmer, wool classer and firefighter got straight back on the fire truck and continued the fight, trying to prevent others suffering the same fate.
The far-reaching consequences of the fire on his own life would have to wait for the crisis to pass.
He found a bed for a few hours each night, either with mates or at the Parndana Country Fire Services station, and continued working from dawn until midnight, battling the blazes which still threatened homes and property across the western half of the island.
A lieutenant at the Parndana CFS, Shane had already spent every day for two weeks fighting the initial blaze, which started on December 20 in the Duncan, Middle River, area in the island's northwest. Fire crews from across the island and beyond had been mopping up spot fires and creating fire breaks to protect farms and homes threatened by that blaze. By early January, there were signs they were finally starting to get the upper hand until another nightmare weather system struck on January 3, and all hell broke loose. "I think we only lost one shed, maybe two sheds, in that first two weeks," Shane says during a break at the Parndana CFS headquarters.
"No lives were lost, everyone was pretty happy and then the forecast for this next lot came in. So just after we took a breath and thought it might be time to relax, the weather was just absolutely crazy and sh.. really hit the fan."
Lightning on December 30 at the top of Flinders Chase National Park ignited new growth and the fire broke containment lines on January 3 on the back of horrific and changing winds.
Shane was with his brigade, listening to reports on the radio as the fire stormed towards Parndana and his 100ha property, about 10km north of the town.
He bought the property in 2010, farming sheep, potatoes and now garlic to supplement his income as a wool classer. Originally from Fremantle in WA, he had spent years travelling Australia, classing sheep, before settling in Parndana in 2003. Now 46, he is entrenched in the community, has been president, vice-president and treasurer of the Parndana Roosters Football Club, where he clocked up his 250th game last year.
He is also a senior member of the town's CFS, and when he heard reports that the fire had reached the town and his property, he commandeered a truck with a mate and drove towards the maelstrom. "People just got locked down all over the island," he recalls. "You couldn't cross roads. It was too stupid to go and fight the fire - you couldn't fight the fire."
His two dogs, Socks and Lucy, were tied up at home. He rang his neighbours but they told him the fire was too close, and they couldn't leave their home. So he drove there himself, and, his heart sank when he approached the property and realised his home was probably gutted.
"As I went down the hill, I thought, oh f..., it's missed me, it's nearly missed me," he said.
"But then I went up the hill and everything was just glowing. It was about 11pm at night, and the trees were just glowing. They were just red. When I got (to the house), my guts were just churning. I nearly threw up. I thought 'oh man, it's got me'. Everything was alight."
He presumed his dogs and Lucy's seven puppies were dead. It was a sight he didn't want to confront, so he kept driving towards his garlic-packing shed, filled with garlic harvested a few weeks before.
Over the past 18 months his business Kangaroo Island Fresh Garlic has gradually made a name for itself, providing quality, pesticide-free garlic products. It's a business he dreamt up over a few beers with good mates Lachie and Sam Hollitt. The trio figured there was a market for KI-grown garlic, and set the wheels in motion to join forces to create a joint venture.
They did their research and were preparing to plant their first crop when Sam was killed in a car crash. Shane and Lachie were too devastated to go ahead with the crop that year but regrouped and were preparing to start the business in Sam's honour when Lachie fell ill with testicular cancer. He died nine months later.
Shane decided the boys would have wanted him to push ahead with the garlic enterprise, and all of this year's crop was sitting in wooden boxes in a sorting shed about 100m from his home when the fire raged through. Fortuitously, the shed is on the northeastern side of a small rise. The now barren garlic patch also provided a fire break and when the inferno ripped through from the southwest, it branched out either side of the shed before converging again in time to take out Shane's house.
It was a miracle the fire had missed shed and garlic, but an even bigger wonder that Socks, Lucy and the puppies all survived. The two adult dogs were tied to two trees between the house and the shed and Shane reckons the ground cleared by their constantly moving chains had acted as a firebreak, and potentially saved their lives - even though the ferocious wind that accompanied the blaze picked up a makeshift doghouse and threw it 30-40m through the air.
He found Socks and Lucy still tied to their chains. A tree had exploded and fallen down around Socks. She was terrified but unhurt. Lucy was cowering in a dog box when Shane arrived. He found three of her puppies that night, two the next morning and another two the following afternoon.
By early January, Shane's garlic had spent enough time out of the ground and drying and was ready to be sorted, peeled and packed. He had dedicated months promoting his business to retailers and had important orders to fill.
But for nearly a month - two weeks either side of losing his home - Shane had dedicated every waking minute concentrating on fighting fires.
So when army reservists in town as part of Operation Bushfire Assist manning the water at the Parndana CFS station heard of his plight, they put up their hands and arranged crews to spend days in his shed. They helped sort the bulbs and remove the stems so the garlic could be split into cloves, peeled and processed ready for sale as either fresh produce, frozen cloves, garlic salt, powder or granules.
The response from the army and others from the mainland has been something many Islanders will long remember.
A stranger from Western Australia towed a caravan 3000km after hearing of Shane's plight. He dropped off the van, told Shane he could keep it as long as he needed, and also handed over an envelope containing $1000.
It was an act of generosity that brought Shane to tears.
He plans to rebuild, probably on the same spot as the gutted house, which he had spent years gradually renovating. He had put in a new kitchen, built a deck around the outside and reclad the exterior with HardiPlank.
That's all gone now, as are the cherished photos, but a few chairs still surround an outside fire pit, where he and footy club mates have enjoyed countless catch-ups in a picturesque wilderness frequented by rosellas, parrots, magpies, kookaburras, kangaroos, koalas and echidnas. The birds are silent for the time being, but they will return. The island's wildlife has already started its long and gradual process of recovery. So has its people.
"They'll fight and fight," Shane says of his fellow Islanders. "It will take years to recover, but they'll get there. And this fire won't be forgotten."
MORE REPORTS FROM THE FIREGROUNDS: