The following is an account of my deployment to Mallacoota following the devastating New Years bushfire.
Hamish MacCallum 17 January 2020
Mallacoota fires Supporting a community in crisis
In the first week of January 2020 I volunteered to join a strike team of 22 firefighters deploying to Mallacoota on Victoria’s east coast to relieve crews from our district who had been previously deployed Mallacoota, like many east coast communities was isolated from the rest of the country and the roads in would take weeks to clear. We were due to fly in on the 2nd but smoke was making it impossible to land aircraft safely. Thousands of people were stranded and no one was coming in or out. We finally hit the road on Saturday the 4th, still unsure how or when we would get to Mallacoota. It was another hot, windy day and we all had no idea what to expect. Like fire, the nature of long haul deployment is unpredictable. We expected that once we got in, we wouldn’t know how or when we would get out.
Five hours on the bus and we began to see the fires consuming half of East Gippsland. A sense of silent foreboding permeated the bus. We were approaching a large, dark mass of sky, like a lurking behemoth waiting to swallow us. Information and instructions were dynamic, we were a small part of a massive logistical operation, unprecedented, as many have stated.
We arrived at Swan Reach staging area, a large encampment of emergency service workers set up on the local sports oval. The sea of tents and hordes of firefighters, SES, ambos and all involved in looking after the well-being of hundreds of people became our community for the night. We ate food, rubbed shoulders with firefighters from the USA and all over Victoria and played cricket while we waited patiently for the go ahead. By early afternoon the following day we finally had word we would fly out of the ADF air training base at Sale which had rapidly become the centre for air operations supporting the rescue and relief efforts to the communities under siege.
Evacuees were arriving on the aircraft now landing. This was to be our ride into the fire grounds. We waited for the Chinook to be fuelled and loaded with supplies before boarding. The atmosphere of teamwork and comradeship amongst the ADF, CFA, police and other relief workers/relief teams as we went on board was a great example of how Australians come together in crisis. The Chinook waited for us on the tarmac and we made our way on board.
The flight path hugged the coast and soon enough we were seeing the burning landscape, held in check only by the rugged coast. As we landed we were enthusiastically greeted with cheers and applause from the next round of evacuees waiting on the tarmac for their way out of an arduous and challenging week in Mallacoota. Visible relief is an understatement. They had involuntarily been through hell and they had overwhelming admiration for those who choose to put themselves in their place. We were surrounded by a blackened landscape, and it was clear to us that people had worked hard to save the air strip and terminal. It was lucky for everyone that they’d managed it - or rather it was a combination of hard work and bravery.
We were met at the airport by a CFA volunteer who gave us a briefing on what to expect. We were to be putting out smouldering fires and providing the community with information, logistical support, reassurance and counselling. The community was traumatised by an experience that can weaken the knees of even the toughest veteran firefighters. Listening to their stories was as important as any of the many tasks ahead. Over 100 houses and two lives had been lost in Mallacoota, amazingly much of the towns infrastructure had survived intact.
After another briefing at the fire station we were allocated our accommodation for the night, an Air b’n’b, normally occupied by families now heading home by ship or plane from their interrupted summer holidays. We headed to the pub which was to be our hub for food and time out each morning and evening. CFA, police, ambos, MFB impact assessment teams and other emergency workers became the main patrons for a pub normally bustling with locals and holidaymakers. As we walked to pick up our tanker evidence of a hard fought battle against the ember storm became apparent. Spot fires had started all around, some quashed before taking hold, some taking out a row of trees or a garden fence before being extinguished, others unable to be quelled before consuming houses, sheds or anything the developing fire could grasp. This was obviously a hard fought battle and the whole community had been involved. Evidence of the weapons from the fight lay around the town; buckets in driveways, wheelie bins filled with water and a mop on the nature strip on the main drag. We made our way to our accommodation, squeezed 16 tired firefighters into beds (some of us doubling up for the night) in a lovely house with a stunning view; no electricity a reminder that we were still on an active fireground.
The next morning we breakfasted at the pub again before being briefed at the fire station. We were allocated a sector to manage and tasked with blacking out, identifying dangerous trees (there were many still burning) for the specialist tree fellers to drop. This job in itself will need to be done for weeks, if not longer.
Patrolling and talking with he locals quickly became an important role to keep up the spirits of the local community, who are in my opinion the true heroes of Mallacoota. We were warmly greeted everywhere we went. It was clear that just our being there was an enormous boost to the locals.
We stopped by a house near the edge to a forest with still burning trees and was greeted by a woman who shared her story. Anger and frustration were expressions of the trauma she had experienced; she gave us all a hug and shed a few tears. Next door we helped an old man with his shopping while he shared his account of the fire. He had a lucky escape, others were not so fortunate. Around the corner a burned out house was cordoned with crime scene tape, we knew not to go there.
In our sector there was a large gully complex that remained untouched by fire. The sounds of the environmental refugees filled our senses - the calls of birds sharing unfamiliar territory. It was clear this was an important oasis that needed protection from the smouldering fires surrounding it.
We were working in unfamiliar territory. I had an awesome crew with me; we bonded well through clear communication, collective problem solving and humour. We stuck together and kept each other safe, having moments to relax and reflect, keeping up our morale in unique circumstances.
On our last day of the rotation the road was finally cleared to Gypsy Point, a small community that had been isolated by the fires. As we drove through the burnt forest it told the story of its direction of travel, varying intensity and level of destruction. In some parts the fire would have been terrifying.
We arrived at Gypsy Point and were tasked with cleaning up the roadside from trees that had fallen or had been felled. Obviously dangerous trees are quickly identified and removed. Time will reveal many more weakened by the fire, as their supporting roots smoulder away beneath the hot, dry soil. These roads will remain unsafe for some time.
At the end of our deployment the smoke was playing havoc with air support once again, so our journey home was to be on the HMAS Choules, the ship that had evacuated so many stranded families from the Mallacoota foreshore. I had family friends who had been on the first evacuation, with over a thousand others. We joined the last group of 200 evacuees along with 44 dogs, and police and other emergency workers rotating their shifts. The crew of the Choules were awesome - we were made to feel at home and invited to explore the ship, from the enormous docking bay to the bridge. We were told if a door was unlocked, to feel free to go in. Such extraordinary kindness and generosity kept us all in high spirits and proud to be a part of the huge community supporting the people and animals whose lives will be forever marked by this bushfire season.
For me a positive that has come from the fires is being reminded that care and generosity are traits we all share and that most of us give freely without question. Over the months ahead many emotions will be expressed by the people who were caught in that terrible situation; outrage, anger, sadness, frustration. These will fade in time. For me the sense of joy in working together with so many souls to help others is the enduring foundation of being a firefighter.
I offer huge thanks to the team who joined me on this deployment, in particular my own crew; your skills, experience, kindness, consideration and commitment were exemplary.