how Mallacoota was cut off from the world by fire
The fire that shut off Mallacoota is one of the defining moments of this summer’s bushfire season.
Culminating in a dramatic and unprecedented navy rescue by sea, the fire left thousands huddled on the beach as the world, in disbelief, watched the sky turn red.
This is an account of how the crisis unfolded as it happened, drawing from The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald’s rolling live coverage, reporting and video from warnings, through the disaster and then the dramatic rescues.
In the days before Christmas, small fires start to burn in Gippsland. By Christmas Day there are serious warnings about the extreme heat on the horizon.
On Boxing Day, authorities urge Victorians to reconsider their holiday plans.
As the region still filled with campers and other tourists, Victoria’s Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp tells them they should turn around and go home. Now.
“If you’re holidaying in that part of the state, it’s time that you left,” he says.
Within hours of his warning, a small fire at Wingan River starts. It is about 30 kilometres west of Mallacoota, soon out of control and generating its own weather.
Those who have stayed don’t know it, but they are already out of time.
An emergency warning is issued for the Mallacoota area.
People in the area are told that an earlier Watch and Act warning has been upgraded due to concerns about an out-of-control bushfire at Wingan River “bearing down” on Mallacoota. It is predicted to reach the area between 5pm-6pm.
The warning tells people they are in danger and should take shelter immediately.
“It is too late to leave. Leaving now would be deadly. Genoa-Mallacoota Road is now closed.”
Jo Grant tells The Age she is preparing to take shelter with her husband, daughter and grandchild.
“We’re walking up and down and my bags are packed,” she tells The Age. “It’s hot and it’s smoky and we’re just on the cusp of a wind change. We’re in such a vulnerable place here.”
People wake on New Year’s Eve in Mallacoota to the news that they are entirely hemmed in by fire.
The bushfire is now big enough to generate its own lightning and is bearing down on the town. Around 4000 people are gathered on the foreshore in the hope they’ll escape its wrath.
The fire is expected to reach the outskirts of the town at daybreak. Mallacoota is without power.
On Twitter Mallacoota local Brendan is sending out photos of the area, where smoke blots out the sun and turns day to night.
There are reports that CFA fire trucks have formed a ring around people on the foreshore to protect them.
A new emergency warning has been issued. The fire front is expected to enter Mallacoota within half an hour.
The Bureau of Meteorology’s weather gauge at Mallacoota is showing 49 degrees, with winds gusting up to 80km/h.
Mallacoota rescue coordinator Don Ashby tells ABC Gippsland that the CFA is instructing people on the foreshore they should get under the water if the fire trucks activate their sirens.
“You can see nothing. It is like the darkest, darkest night. You can hear the fire, it’s roaring away. We’re getting a lot of ash falling. Unless you’ve got [a mask] you’ll be in trouble. A lot of people are using wet tea towels. And that works, but you cannot get enough air in.”
Franchesca also tells ABC she thinks her home will be gone.
“My home is in the fire path. I won’t have a home. That’s just how it’s going to be. We have to try to remain calm. We have maybe 20 per cent visibility. But I’d rather be alive than be at home.”
Incident Alert is now showing 10 fires, including a house fire, in the main street of Mallacoota. People down on the beach are tweeting out images showing a blood red sky.
Larry Gray is at the end of a jetty at Mallacoota wrapped in a blanket.
“We can see the fire coming towards us, there’s hot embers flying through the air – small ones,” Gray tells The Age. “It sounds like a freight train. It’s completely black like midnight. There’s a weird red glow.”
Gas bottles from caravans on the foreshore have been dragged into the ocean to stop them exploding, he says.
“People are really scared … People are thinking the whole town is going to go.”
The bushfire has begun to burn the outskirts of Mallacoota. The majority of those stuck in the town are huddled at the boat ramp where they’re waiting in anticipation.
“Everyone is down at the boat ramp area. The fire has not reached … yet,” Mark from Mallacoota tells ABC Gippsland.
“I am hearing multiple gas cylinders exploding in the township. I don’t know where … But I’ve probably heard anywhere from 12 to 15 cylinders exploding. None of the CFA trucks are down at the boat ramp. I dare say they are all out fighting fires.”
Several houses have now been lost in Mallacoota and a medical centre has been set up.
“It is pitch black. It is quite scary in that community. They right now are under threat. But we will hold our line and they will be saved and protected,” says CFA chief officer Steve Warrington.
Some people have chosen to stay and defend their houses, rather than sheltering on the foreshore. Trucks will not be able to reach and protect them, he confirms.
“Literally as we speak the advice I am receiving from the fire ground is houses are visibly being lost. But the main CBD has been saved.”
Incident Alert also indicates a grass fire within the town where around 4000 people are sheltering.
The smoke lifts slightly, providing some reprieve for those sheltering on the shores of Malacoota.
Mary O’Malley is sheltering on a boat and says some of the thick smoke has lifted after hours of what looked like “armageddon”.
“Suddenly, for the first time this morning we’ve got some daylight.”
The sky had either been pitch black or glowing red since about 8.30am, “which is the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced”.
She agreed the situation would probably become a health issue soon, with about 4000 people needing the toilet.
“We have limited food too,” she says.
CFA’s Steve Warrington says that there has been a wind change and the fire has bypassed the town centre.
“We’ll take any good news we can get at the moment,” he says.
There is still an active fire in the area and the town remains isolated.
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds announces just after 5pm that the navy and air force will deploy to Victoria to help communities including a possible evacuation at Mallacoota.
People in Mallacoota are being urged to boil tap water before drinking it.
Forest Fire Management Victoria issues an alert because the fire put heavy demands on tap water and has affected supply.
The alert notes that bottled water is available from the local IGA supermarket free of charge, and additional supplies are on their way.
It urges all residents and visitors to restrict their water use immediately to essential use, and says the water supply should return to normal within three days.
Defence outlines its assistance to isolated communities including several helicopters and the dispatch of HMAS Choules and MV Sycamore.
Local federal Nationals MP Darren Chester confirms there are at least four people missing in Victoria and that dozens of homes have likely been lost in Mallacoota.
“We will have to find a way to get some of those people out as quick as we possibly can. The full assessment of damage at Mallacoota hasn’t been done. The agencies haven’t been able to get there safely yet, go through street by street.
“My mate on the ground, he tells me dozens of homes have been destroyed. People will need help to get through the next few months, years.”
Geoff Belmore has lost two houses. He’s been holidaying in Mallacoota for 25 years and has lived there for the last four.
“I have been working on the units for the last couple of years,” Mr Belmore says. “Finally got them finished and then it’s totally gone. The whole structure has collapsed. I have a 1977 Corvette, a 1964 Holden ute, a 1942 Dodge that I was turning into a hot rod, a beautiful Harley Davidson, a boat that I loved with a couple of brand-new motors on it and now they’re molten aluminium.”
Musican Justin Brady also loses his home. He is able to save his instruments – including a fiddle, harmonica and mandolin – but his home on Karbeethong Hill does not survive.
“I lost everything pretty much,” Brady says. “I built the house 25 years ago but only just recently, the last three months, I decided to live there as my base. Previously I had lived here but toured too.”
During the fire he takes refuge for hours in a boat near a jetty where 50 people sheltered.
“It was apocalyptic,” he says.
HMAS Choules, an amphibious landing ship with a dock for helicopters and the capacity to carry 700 troops at maximum load, leaves Sydney Harbour on Wednesday morning to help Mallacoota. It will be joined by MV Sycamore – a patrol vessel that can carry a helicopter.
Gas company Esso is helping with the rescue and recovery effort in Mallacoota, offering two ships and helicopters to help emergency services and assist in evacuations.
Emergency Commissioner Andrew Crisp announces that water, food and petrol supplies are headed for Mallacoota.
He outlines a plan to use helicopters to assist in the delivery of the supplies and facilitate a shift change for the firefighters on the ground.
A barge containing 30,000 litres of fuel and a two-week supply of food and water is also on its way from Melbourne.
The Australian Defence Force is also moving naval assets, two Black Hawk helicopters and a larger Taipan helicopter into Mallacoota.
This video posted on the Mallacoota Community News Facebook page shows the moment locals form a human chain to help carry some cases of bottled water from a boat to a waiting trailer.
A large helicopter leaves Bairnsdale Airport, carrying 20 firefighters. They have been sent in to relieve some of the exhausted and injured firemen on the ground.
Tap water in Mallacoota is safe to drink again but people are urged to restrict their water usage to conserve supplies.
HMAS Choules is capable of carrying about 1000 passengers, but about 4000 people remain stranded around the town’s beach area, including about 1000 locals.
Emergency Management Victoria says the ship will make two to three trips over the coming days, with a view to evacuating all of those stranded before conditions worsen on Saturday.
The vessel will also deliver water, food and medical supplies.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews says 800 people will be evacuated on Thursday morning. He is unable to say where they will be taken to.
People are lining up to register for Friday’s evacuation. The commander of HMAS Choules says the registration is to gauge how many of the 4000 people stranded want to be evacuated.
“If the number is greater than 1000, then it’s going to be a second load. It’s 16-17 hours to the closest boat port, then we’ve got to come back.”
For the first time in Victoria’s history, a state of disaster is declared.
Premier Daniel Andrews desperately urges residents in threatened communities to evacuate before fire conditions deteriorate today and tomorrow.
The declaration gives the state government powers to evacuate residents and towns in six designated local government areas and the alpine resorts.
The HMAS Choules evacuation mission begins.
The journey is complex and has been restricted to the able-bodied and those above the age of four. It will involve climbing up rope ladders and smaller ferry boats.
Others wanting to leave will be offered flights out while conditions are still relatively clear.
The first of 1000 people to evacuate have begun to board vessels at Bastion Point to be ferried out to HMAS Choules under a thick cloud of smoke.
There are a number of teary faces as people leave the much-loved area shrouded in a blanket of deep, heavy smoke.
Age photographer Justin McManus overhears a sombre conversation between a little boy and his mother lining up to board HMAS Choules. “I never want to come here again,” the boy says before his mother tries to reassure him: “But we’ll go back next year. Everything would have grown back.”
As about 1000 weary Mallacoota evacuees and their pets board HMAS Choules for the journey to safety they are provided with a little comic relief.
A ship commander greets the displaced with an instruction to think of the impressive navy vessel as “a cruise ship without the pina coladas”.
The first 58 evacuees arrive in Melbourne via the MV Sycamore.
They and 150 of their pets, including rabbits and a parrot will make their way to the Somerville relief centre to end this week of horror.
Shire mayor Sam Hearn says staff had worked “pretty hard” over the past few days to prepare all the support people may need.
“That includes everything from obviously food and water, spaces to rest, quiet spaces, mental and emotional wellbeing support with some chaplaincy and mental health workers, pharmaceutical and medical support as well,” Cr Hearn says.
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds has ordered the “compulsory call-out” of up to 3000 Army reservists to help with the bushfire response.
As well as Army reservists, the federal government is sending in the Navy.
Prime Minister Morrison says HMAS Adelaide will sail from Sydney this afternoon, and be located offshore from fire-affected areas near the border of Victoria and New South Wales from tomorrow afternoon.
The ship is “fully equipped for disaster relief and humanitarian aid”, he says, and able to carry 400 crew, including medical staff, as well as 300 tonnes of emergency relief supplies.
Mallacoota is now under ember attack.
“We’re trying to get people inside the hall, out of the embers. We’ve got people on the roof with hoses,” Don Ashby tells ABC Gippsland.
With up to 3000 people still in the town, Mr Ashby said the relief centre has only just sourced a fridge and most people were eating cold Foodbank donations brought in by sea.
The smoke has grounded helicopters being used to airlift people who were not eligible for evacuation on HMAS Choules including children.
Sarah Beer, who has children aged one and three, tells The Age the sky has turned black and their caravan on the foreshore is being soaked with water as a precaution.
“It’s pitch black outside now so I am a little bit scared – we are getting another attack coming through,” she says.
“Both of my children have shown respiratory issues because of four days of constant smoke. We need to get out of the smoke but there are no planes or choppers going anywhere. We are still stuck.”
Mallacoota is now shrouded in a burgundy darkness.
Twitter user @Brendanh remarks it’s so “dark that people are almost invisible”.
HMAS Choules has docked at Hastings where the evacuees are transported onto buses. The first busload of people is expected to arrive at the Somerville relief centre at 5:30pm.
About 800 people are heading to Somerville, with a further 200 going straight to Melbourne. Those headed to Melbourne will be put up at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre or at Crown.
Nineteen-year-old Jackie Stefanopoulous, who was on board HMAS Choules, had been holidaying in Mallacoota with her boyfriend and his family, when “all of a sudden we heard about the incoming bushfires”.
“I was petrified, a lot of people were petrified,” she tells The Age.
“The sense of uncertainty [was frightening], like not knowing whether we will be OK, understanding that there were bushfires surrounding us only a couple of metres. I feared for my life, it was really scary.”
Buses are taking people from the Mallacoota Hall to board a C-27J Spartan helicopter that is evacuating holidaymakers by air.
“They’re flying people out while the weather’s good. It’s pretty clear here, we can see the Howe Range for the first time in two days,” Don Ashby says.
Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp says 61 people have left by air this morning, with an expected total of 350 people to evacuate by the end of the day.
After days of life-threatening fire, black skies, oppressive smoke, caring for a sick child and repeated disappointments about evacuation, Montreal-based Meaghan Wegg tells The Age she has had enough of Mallacoota. “I don’t cry much but it definitely came out last night,” she says.
This latest airlift leaves 400 people who have chosen to stay in the community.
Two vets from Healesville Sanctuary have arrived in Mallacoota to treat injured wildlife.
“Despite their injuries and trauma, the bravery shown by the koalas and wildlife at Mallacoota is inspiring,” Dr Leanne Wicker says.
Zoos Victoria chief executive Jenny Grey said an estimated 500 million animals had been killed in bushfires this fire season and that the full impact was impossible to determine at this stage.
It’s raining. East Gippsland has seen 5 millimetres of patchy rain over the past 24 hours. Another 5-10 millimetres are expected to arrive today. It’s unfortunately not enough to impact the fires.
Three hundred people have registered to evacuate Mallacoota today. Premier Daniel Andrews says 406 people were taken out by helicopter on Sunday.
Priority for evacuation by air is given to young children and their families, the sick and the elderly who had not been allowed on HMAS Choules, which on Friday took more than 900 people from Mallacoota on a 20-hour journey to Melbourne.
But then airlifts were repeatedly delayed because of poor visibility and a Chinook helicopter and RAAF Spartan military transport aircraft were unable to land at Mallacoota airport.
The final 300 people who would like to evacuate Mallacoota are scheduled to leave via HMAS Choules this afternoon, a State Control Centre spokesman says.
The Navy ship is expected to dock in Hastings, near the Mornington Peninsula, tomorrow evening. The City of Melbourne will re-open an emergency relief centre at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre for another group of people aboard HMAS Choules from Mallacoota.
About 200 evacuees are expected to arrive at Hastings, on the Mornington Peninsula, about 5pm on Wednesday. A further 142 people left behind at Mallacoota and wanting to leave will be flown out when weather conditions allow.
Diesel has been dropped into Mallacoota to power generators with priority given to relief centres, hospitals, airports, communications and essential services.
Federal MP for East Gippsland Darren Chester says petrol supplies have arrived in Mallacoota. “We were able to provide today four 200 litre drums of unleaded fuel for the public to access to maintain that little bit of comfort they may have until the power is restored to the town,” he says.
He also says that fresh milk and produce was delivered to the supermarkets of Mallacoota by the Australian Defence Force.
Mr Chester says the remaining residents are in “great spirits”.
At least 300 homes have been lost. Everyone who has registered their desire to leave Mallacoota has now been evacuated.
The Age reporter Michael Fowler visits Mallacoota on January 15 and finds it nearly deserted.
Local firefighter Dean Shaw, whose home has been running on a generator for 15 days, says an end to the fires is, at least, in sight.
“A fair way away, but it’ll be good. Then the town, once everyone goes and it’s back to just us, has got to turn around,” he says.
“I don’t think we’ve really taken in and comprehended the enormity of the whole thing yet.”