Written by Elisabeth Gail
We’ve all heard a lot about the summer’s bushfires—on the news, on social media, from the mouths of politicians and celebrities, and in chatter amongst friends and colleagues. Most of what I’ve heard has come from third-party voices showing their concern or frustration, but that extra layer of distance always makes things a little blurred. The most important voices to listen to are those who have actually seen and experienced the tragedy—who have spoken to and been there with those who have lost everything. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview a friend of mine who experienced some of the Victorian bushfires.
Hannah is twenty-one years old and is living in West Gippsland. She’s passionate about caring for people and spends a lot of her spare time volunteering in various outreach programs. Over the summer of 2019/2020, one of these programs took her to Mallacoota.
EG: Whereabouts were you staying in Mallacoota? Were you aware of any risks when you initially travelled up?
HM: We were originally staying in the Mallacoota kindergarten, but the group I was there with were moved out of the kinder due to fire risk on the 30th. After that, we stayed in the church until we left. Yes, we were aware of the potential fire risk, as is anywhere in Australia during the high heat of summer, but we run a children’s program up there every year, and we didn’t want to cancel it just because of the high risk. We had our fire plan ready before we went up—just in case—and were prepared to take action from the start.
EG: How were you preparing once you knew there was a high fire risk?
HM: First, we moved out of the kindergarten and put all of our stuff into one of our marquees. The authorities told us right from the start not to leave Mallacoota as it was the safest place to stay. Lots of people did leave despite being told to stay, and many of them were later trapped up at Eden and other towns. We were informed to put warm protective clothes on to protect us from falling ash and embers. We then evacuated to the beach on the evening of the 30th to sit on the waterfront and wait. We contacted our families and loved ones to update them on the situation and kept in touch with the appropriate authorities so as to be ready for whatever happened next.
EG: Where were you/what were you doing when you found out the fire was spreading towards you?
HM: I don’t actually remember what I was doing at the time, but I wasn’t really shocked when it happened. As a Christian, I trusted Jesus to protect us from the fire, but being a child of God doesn’t automatically protect you from danger. He often throws trials our way to make us stronger and to rely on Him better, so I knew His plan was probably different to ours, and I wasn’t surprised when I heard it was coming towards us. However, I wasn’t worried either—I knew He would keep us safe, and I had no doubt in the CFA’s ability to protect us.
EG: How did you and those around you react when you knew you had to evacuate? How quick was the evacuation when you knew the fire was coming?
HM: Being evacuated in real life is a lot different from the movies. It was surprisingly slow and relaxed. People kept returning back to their caravans and stuff to get more precious items. Our first evacuation was the night of the 30th, which was kind of a false alarm as the fire was still a while away, but the smoke had turned the sky orange and ash was falling so we could tell something was happening. We were allowed to still walk around and move away from the beachfront.
The next morning, New Year’s Eve, we were all kept in lockdown inside the church and relief centre as the sky turned blood red and then pitch black. Due to the extreme heat and thick embers falling outside, it was too dangerous to venture out. Only after the initial fire front had passed us, were we evacuated down to the boat ramp with thousands of other people. To get there, we had to walk about ten mins through the town, but by that stage we were all walking pretty fast and were aware of the danger posed to us.
EG: What was it like waiting on the beach to be properly evacuated? (How at risk were you? How were you and those around you coping? How long were you there waiting?)
HM: It was pretty boring. We sat there for hours, watching the fire engines come to fill up their water tanks and go back to the fire. We would all cheer and clap every time they drove past, and a huge cheer went up when we were told the fire front had passed. Although we could see the fire from where we were, and there were still embers falling, I don’t think the CFA would have let the fire get down to where we were, so we felt pretty safe. Once the fire had passed, it started to get cold again, and everyone was hungry. Kids were crying, and parents just wanted to see if any of their belongings and homes had survived. My friends and I sang a few silly songs to entertain mostly ourselves but also a few of the families around us as well.
EG: What gave you hope (if anything) while you were waiting on the beach?
HM: The rescue crew was absolutely amazing! They did so much for us, and we totally trusted them to keep us safe and look after us. Also, being a Christian, I had hope in Jesus that He would bring us safely out of the fire and back into the arms of our families and loved ones.
EG: How did you and those around you react when you were finally able to be properly evacuated?
HM: Well, we were actually pretty shocked that such drastic measures had to be taken. I think we expected to be able to drive home after the fire had passed. It was about five days after the fire had gone through before we were able to get on the Navy ship HMAS Choules. No one in Mallacoota had heard that it was coming until it was actually there and the Navy officers told us to register if we wanted to leave. My friends and I were told we would probably not leave until the second or third shipment, but since not many people actually registered, we were able to leave on the first ship. Everyone cheered, of course, but a few of my friends would have liked to stay and help out the locals, I think.
EG: Having been there with some of the people who were affected most brutally by the fires, what would you encourage others to do in response to this tragedy?
HM: Most of the people who lost homes have been able to move into fully furnished holiday homes and Airbnbs, so they don’t need more stuff. What most people are encouraged to do is either support charities like the CFA and Red Cross who were there and helped us the most and/or to come back in the winter with an empty tank of fuel and an empty esky and just spend a lot of money at local shops to help bring their economy back. So many shop owners have lost their main summer business, which helps them last the year. So if you can afford a holiday this year, go up to Mallacoota and help them rebuild their community and their lives!
Since the 1st of January 2020, $142 million has been donated to the Red Cross for bushfire relief. These funds are being used every day as emergency grants for people whose homes were destroyed or rendered permanently uninhabitable. After the fires, Hannah has returned home safely and started settling back into normal life, but she is still keen to return to Mallacoota and other similar places to serve communities and individuals when the opportunity arises.
This article was written prior to COVID-19 restrictions.