For the first time in four months, disability support recipient Michelle Ryder has doors on her house again. 

But as temperatures drop below zero degrees Celsius in her Riverland home, the immunocompromised 54-year-old will have to make an impossible choice — to heat her home or to eat.

Ms Ryder’s front door was in January shattered by vandals, who left the back door in a similar state of disrepair.

From then up until just last month, she used a sheet to try and keep out some of the harsh weather.

Ms Ryder did not have a front door for more than four months until a friend built her one out of pallets.(ABC Riverland: Amelia Walters)

“The back door now just has one piece of glass left that it normally would, and I have had to board the rest up myself,” Ms Ryder said.

Ms Ryder now has some protection from the elements thanks to a friend who used wooden pallets to make her a new front door.

Most nights, the disability support pensioner layers up her clothing and cuddles her two-year-old American Staffordshire terrier named Budiful to keep herself warm.

Ms Ryder says Budiful feels the cold just as much as she does.(ABC Riverland: Amelia Walters)

“In winter we go to bed early because it is so cold, that way we can snuggle and keep warm,” she said.

“I’ve noticed over the past few nights since having the wooden door it has been less drafty, but there are still bits of cold that come through.”

As someone who is immunocompromised and suffers from connective tissue disease, staying warm is a priority. 

The gaps in Ms Ryder’s front door let in the cold winter nights.(ABC Riverland: Amelia Walters)

But with Loxton’s minimum temperature during winter sitting at 4C, she worried about the winter to come.

“If you need to use the heating system, [I have to] cut back on shopping because it is so expensive,” Ms Ryder said.

“I average between $200 and $300 a month for power, and that’s with me being conservative.

“It’s a struggle. Most fortnights I pay $25 onto my electricity bills just so they don’t cut me off.” 

Similar experiences across Australia

According to the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water, Australians use 40 per cent of their energy on heating and cooling.

The data follows the most recent Australian Energy Regulator’s report, which showed the first quarter of electricity prices for 2024 were higher than the preceding quarter in all regions across Australia.

Anglicare SA Financial Counselling and Emergency Assistance manager Astra Fleetwood said the data was concerning and the demand for emergency assistance increased daily. 

“We have to close our phone lines and close our doors because there are only so many people we can see in a day,” she said.

“Last year we saw an increase in the cost of living and we expect that to continue to worsen.

“It’s people having to choose whether or not they have food on the table, paying the rent, or paying electricity.

“I think we’re very much at a crisis point in the community.”

Ms Fleetwood said many families had turned to firewood to save, but as the price continued to rise, many were using harmful materials to compensate.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the time, it’s chemically treated because it was leftover furniture in hard rubbish,” she said. 

“As we’re going into the colder weather, I think we’re going to see more of that [behaviour].”

Firewood industry feeling the heat 

It is not just electricity and energy prices burning a hole in people’s pockets. Many firewood wholesalers say they are struggling too. 

Riverland locals who sell firewood say it is not a profitable product.(ABC Riverland: Amelia Walters)

Flooding across the Red Gum State Forest along the Murray River has meant wood harvesting has only been accessible for seven of the past 18 months, leaving businesses having to source other wood varieties.

NSW’s Gelletly Red Gum Firewood managing director Todd Gelletly said his company had sourced wood from more than 800 kilometres away — meaning the price of his operation had spiked. 

Mr Gelletly says his business expenses have increased as the cost-of-living crisis worsens.(Supplied: Todd Gelletly)

“Pre-COVID, we were paying probably about $1 for diesel, and at the moment we’re between $1.90 and $2.10 a litre, and diesel’s a big part of our business,” he said.

“We’ve just had to absorb that increase because we can’t pass that on to customers at the moment.

“There’s a point where people are going to say they can’t afford to buy the firewood and we don’t want to go down that path.”

Renmark local and JCK Engineering and Services co-owner Jeff Burn said he was in the same position as Mr Gelletly.

Mr Burn said JCK had not changed the price of their firewood to ensure customers kept returning.

Mr Burn and his partner Natalie Hull absorb costs to keep firewood affordable.(ABC Riverland: Amelia Walters)

“We sell it for $190 a bin and that hasn’t changed from previous years,” he said.

“We do it to help the community. Otherwise, it’s too dear.”

Back in Michelle Ryder’s 1960s home where firewood was not an option, she could only rely on the comfort of her canine to get her through the cold. 

Ms Ryder says she would not be the same person without Budiful by her side.(ABC Riverland: Amelia Walters)

“I’m getting through it slowly. I have good family and friend support … Loxton police have [also] been fantastic,” she said.

“I would not be coping as well if I didn’t have Budiful … we are just going to take every day as it comes.”

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