Australia

Mallacoota: How people survived in the fire-hit beach town

Red glow from fire seen creeping over Mallacoota Image copyright AMY SAVAGE
Image caption Mallacoota on New Year's Eve morning as seen from the water

Out on the water, crammed into a boat with five members of her family, Amy Savage felt helpless watching a line of orange spread across the sky.

How bad would the fire be? How long would they be stuck out here?

"The scariest thing was not knowing," she says.

Just an hour earlier, she and her family had fled their campground tents as a mammoth blaze swept towards the sleepy Australian coastal town of Mallacoota.

This was not the New Year's Eve they had been anticipating.

Amy Savage wearing a face mask on the boat out on the water at Mallacoota Image copyright AMY SAVAGE
Image caption Amy Savage on the boat out on the water at Mallacoota

For years, her family, like many others, had ventured to this corner of the nation each summer for an idyllic coastal getaway filled with nature trails, fishing and water-skiing.

Now she feared it was burning to the ground. All around her in the dark, other holidaymakers waited anxiously in their bobbing boats, scanning the foreshore.

Waiting on the shore

On the beach, people lined the water's edge, fearful of the fire front's advance.

Authorities had told reporters there were 4,000 people sheltering on the beach on Tuesday morning but witnesses reported there were only hundreds actually on the sand.

People in Mallacoota evacuated to the beaches under a deep-red sky Image copyright PETER HOSKIN
Image caption Locals shelter on the beach at Mallacoota on Tuesday morning

The smoke was so toxic that many, including Melbourne couple Raphael Korman, 30 and his wife Yukie, 31, were sheltering in their cars near the foreshore. Yukie, who has a respiratory issue, was struggling to breathe in the smoke.

Their camping trip had been aborted the day before when authorities escalated warnings about a fire set to sweep through the region. The couple debated staying at their camp in the bush, but ultimately heeded the warnings, Mr Korman said.

The long, dark night

So on 30 December, they drove back into Mallacoota - passing closed roads along the way. That night they bunkered down in the holiday park which doubled as the emergency meeting area.

The atmosphere was tense: "You could see this glowing redness that was starting to encroach on the town," Mr Korman said.

The next day he woke up at 08:00 where "everything [was] pitch dark - like the sun forgot to rise. There's no sun - absolutely no light coming from the sky." His eyes watered from the smoke.

The fire had gotten so close to the town by now that its smoke column - a plume as high as 14km into the sky - had completely blacked out the sky.

Mallacoota dark Image copyright Twitter: brendanh_au

"This was when we were most anxious," he told told the BBC. "When there was no sun, and everything was just black there was this real feeling of apocalyptic dread. This is otherworldly - not a natural thing to be happening," he said.

The sky stayed black for another hour then changed to blood-red. The fire had arrived in town.

Saving homes

Dominic Van Der Merwe and his brother had stayed behind to defend their father's property on the town's north edge, while the rest of the family fled to the jetty by the shore.

That night they had set alarms every hour to keep an eye out for embers. By 07:30 they were up, hosing down the house and the large garden, keeping things wet. They heard the fire before they saw it.

"It sounded like a jet engine, a far-away plane over the hill that we were on," Mr Van Der Merwe told the BBC.

"Then the first we actually saw of it was when the blackness of the clouds above us started to glow red," - the fire was behind the crest in the hill - where the first line of houses were.

Suddenly, the front burst over the top, hitting a street only 200m away. Gas bottles were "screaming and then exploding".

Twisted corrugated iron and brick stacks remain of a home destroyed by fire in Mallacoota Image copyright DOMINIC VAN DER MERWE
Image caption Many homes in Mallacoota could not be saved
Burnt out chair in a front of a destroyed property in Mallacoota Image copyright RAPHAEL KORMAN

Embers started to shower down around them, sparking spot fires around their house. Some flared up on their exit route - in the worst case scenario they had planned to escape via their boat at the bottom of the hill.

"That's when it started to get very real - up until that point it was just so eerie but then when there was one below us the whole thing was just adrenalin, you just kept going to put them out."

His family and two others worked for hours to quash fires around their block. The front bypassed their home but destroyed others.

Campground ember attack

A few kilometres south down at the campground by the foreshore, "alarms went off, embers started to fly into town and spot fires were appearing all over," says Mr Korman.

But the response was efficient and measured he said. Those who stayed behind the campground were prepared.

"People weren't panicking - they were composed," he said. "Everyone had buckets of water, they were hosing down their caravans and pouring water on embers as they fell."

"I asked one bloke tackling the embers how he was going and he just sort of flashed a thumbs up, that sort of stoic nature."

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionMallacoota resident David Jeffrey says people were "terrified for their lives"

Wal Lawson, 69, was one of the people who stayed in the campground to protect the caravans and tents.

"It was certainly scary and what have you, but the adrenalin kicks in and you just run around putting out the embers," he told the BBC.

He and his wife had mapped out an escape route if it came to it - a friend was manning a boat on the water.

"A few times, I have to say, we wondered if we should have just gone in the boat and gone - but I'm glad we stayed back.

"I don't want to overdramatise it- ours was chicken feet compared to what the firefighters were doing up in town - but i think it helped."

Aftermath

By early afternoon, the worst of the threat had passed, helped by a favourable change in wind direction. However, dozens of homes on the town's perimeter were razed. The one road leading out of the town was closed off.

Ms Savage and her family motored back to shore as the sky lifted to orange and then a dirty smoky grey. She feels guilty that the campground survived, while many locals' homes were lost.

Over the following days, police organised airlifts of food, water and other supplies to the cut-off town.

Army vehicle in Mallacoota helps evacuate people Image copyright FRAN LAWSON
Image caption The military helps evacuate tourists from Mallacoota
Evacuees onboard a naval vessel taking them away from Mallacoota Image copyright FRAN LAWSON
Image caption Hundreds were evacuated from the town on Friday

Evacuations via Black Hawk helicopters and naval vessels took place on Thursday and Friday to whisk holidaymakers away from the area.

Mr Lawson's wife, Fran, has joined the naval evacuation - a 20-hour journey back to Melbourne - but he has stayed behind with some friends to help the town cope with the predicted next batch of fires.

"The campers are safe but the townspeople are really spitting and hit hard."

Saturday's conditions are predicted to be even worse than Tuesday's, and while much of the bush around Mallacoota is burnt, the threat still remains.

He and his family have been coming to Mallacoota every Christmas and New Year's break for close to 31 years.

"This devastation - this was like nothing we'd ever seen," he said.

Reporting by the BBC's Frances Mao.

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