VicPol Corporate

Mallacoota's story, Victorian bushfires remembered

Thursday, 7 January 2021 22:19

While the world watched on in horror at the apocalyptic images of people in Mallacoota being forced to the water's edge by fire, emergency authorities started working on a rescue mission. The devastation of the bushfires in East Gippsland and the northeast of Victoria made the summer of 2019/2020 a historic emergency response challenge for Victoria Police. This story documents Mallacoota's experience of the bushfire, and the ongoing relief and recovery that followed. Filmed in November 2020.

Transcript

Senior Constable Judy Taylor:

I knew it was going to be a monster when I saw that red glow, then I knew it was coming and it was going to come fast, and it was going to come hot, and then when everything went absolutely black. Saturday the 28th of December there was a lightning strike at Wingan Inlet which was further west. As soon as it started we knew it was going to head to Mallacoota. It became critical on Sunday, Monday morning we had a community meeting and we basically laid out what was going to happen, that it was going to be a catastrophic event and we told people that they really should leave.

Darryl Burns, Ranger in Charge:

Mallacoota’s a relatively small community, there are about a thousand permanent residents here. At peak season we might have 10,00 people here. The majority of those are living under canvas or living in caravans. When you get a big angry fire that coming into town that’s a challenging circumstance in itself. You don’t have a snowflakes chance in actually trying to contain that fire or suppress that fire. So we tried to get as many people away from this place as we possibly could, and we were pretty effective but there come a point when the fire was impacting on the only route out of town via road and for those who didn’t get out when that occurred they had to ride it out in town with the rest of us.

Senior Constable Judy Taylor:

There’s one road in and one road out so we were totally self-reliant. We have to get to everything with the resources that we have and the people that we have on hand. Monday at 4 pm. I got recalled to duty and I got recalled saying the fire was an hour away, and that was when people started heading down to the wharf. In the end it didn’t come through till about 9:45 am on Tuesday. People started moving down because this was the place where they were going to be the safest, and this area was just packed with hundreds of people. A lot of people went out on their boats, they basically viewed it from the water, and the big thing is you couldn’t see, it went dark, completely dark. As the fire came though the whole sky was red. Someone got on the radio from Bairnsdale and said all VicPol members get to their safe place. It was like ‘Wow’. I put myself down the wharf. I remember the embers because they were burning holes in the blankets and I was sitting in the edge of the water and I had my sister and my husband and my friends near me, and I went ‘Ok there’s going to be a moment there where we’re going to have to just jump into the water’. But I was lucky because I was in the safest place in Mallacoota, my colleagues who were in the CFA shed trying to fight that wall of fire.

Darryl Burns, Ranger in Charge:

It’s not fire on the edge of town, this is fire all through the town and when it’s in the community that you like, where your family are it has a very different connotation. It was very fast-moving, very intense, lots of ember attack through the town and those embers that just bombarded Mallacoota gave rise to numerous fires through the community and I was actually fearful that there was going to be some very terrible outcomes, and I’m really thankful there wasn’t. Yes, a terrible tragedy, a lot of homes and property was lost in the town, but we didn’t have any significant loss of life.

Senior Constable Judy Taylor:

The community have faith in their emergency services, and we had meetings with them prior to the fire. The big message that came out of that was when you hear sirens and police and emergency vehicles going around the streets then basically you know the time has come where you have to enact your plan or you have to evacuate and that was the key because the community followed our instructions, they did everything that we asked of them, they went to the assembly areas they stayed there for over 24 hours, so the whole success is down to the agencies working together and our community actually responding to our requests and doing what was required. So people had been down at the wharf for over 28 hours, that dread of what was going to happen, them going through what actually happened and then we just had to kick into action and try and get people out. Our first Senior Sergeant, his name was Glen Owens and he arrived in Mallacoota and he was
a godsend.

Acting Senior Sergeant Glenn Owens:

I was initially deployed to assist the IPOC in Bairnsdale and on the 31st of December it was apparent that Mallacoota had been hit pretty hard. The water police were going in that day to provide some PPE and some water. I put a hand up to assist to go in and the next thing you know I was on a boat from Paynesville heading towards Mallacoota. There was still a lot of smoke in the air, it was burnt pretty much to the shoreline in some parts of the national park. I was very conscious that the local police, they were quite fatigued and needed some assistance. I didn’t want the local police to think that I was coming to take over. In effect, I was there to compliment them and assist them.

Senior Constable Judy Taylor:

So he came in and we had a crew from ORU, and they all flew in and it was wonderful to have that support because it freed us up to look after other people in the community and also our
selves and our families.

Acting Senior Sergeant Glenn Owens:

Running the community centre and the community engagement meeting they were very important because they created a routine in the community. I wanted the community to have a voice because effectively that’s who we’re there for so I ensured we had a community leader as part of our emergency management team.

Tim Cashmore, Mallacoota College Principle:

This is where the relief centre was, so all the stakeholders, the Red Cross, emergency services, the briefings that we made inside. Eva Grundon did a great job too from the shire, her and I were trying to get the newsletter out every day, just letting people know what the latest information was and where they could access help, and whether you’re a tourist trying to get out or where you’re permanent local, who has or may not have lost there home that was a really important part. When I met Glenn Owens he made itself available, he would stand there and people would come at him and calmly he answered everybody. So did all the others too, I’m not saying he’s the only one, but his coordination at times was quite remarkable.

Acting Senior Sergeant Glenn Owens:

Everyone worked together really well. There were no particular egos, there was no one with any agendas, it was about getting the job done.

Senior Constable Judy Taylor:

The big thing is we had to find out who was in town, who wasn’t in town and how we were going to get them out and the only way out was via the airport or via the sea. HMAS Choules came in, this massive boat with all these amazing ADF people, came in from the east, so came around here around the corner one the others side of the break wall, and we would use the water police boat to get people in and out. I think the Choules took out about 2000 in two goes, phenomenal effort, and in term of the air evacuation, we created a record. I think we evacuated 420 people by air in one day. The Navy and the Airforce were just so professional, so efficient.

Darryl Burns, Ranger in Charge:

That was a huge feat and not just defence vessels, private vessels, vessels from other government agencies. I’m really impressed at what was achieved and the coordination that came in at really short notice, to be able to pull that together was a significant feat.

Acting Senior Sergeant Glenn Owens:

So I was in Mallacoota for 11 days and I left pretty much at the time they were transitioning from incident into the recovery component. I understand that it’s a long healing process and it’s going
to take a lot of time and a lot of effort is going to be required to get the community back on its feet.

Tim Cashmore, Mallacoota College Principle:

You’ll never know what it’s like till you’re in it. You can look at all the Facebook, all the social media stuff, but being in it is just an incredible experience. And the story’s still going. The story will still go.

Senior Constable Judy Taylor:

The fire came through really hot here. We had a few people who thought that this was the best place to be. They had to lay down, basically, dig a trench in the sand and put their face in the sand to avoid it. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be stuck here and you know I still think it’s going to be a very long time before we get back to anywhere close to what we were
really. The mental health of people is still, is still too raw. There are people who are still displaced and have no way of being in their homes at Christmas.

Darryl Burns, Ranger in Charge:

For a lot of folk you know, this fire has been a huge impact to them and there’s no doubt about it, there’s still significant trauma. This forest has changed significantly as a result of the fire. It’s not what people will remember and yes it looks black and charred but the forest is regenerating.

Senior Constable Judy Taylor:

On the road out there’s an area that just covered in Xanthorrhoea or grass trees and they only flower after a fire so there’s an amazing grass trees that, we’ll never see that in another lifetime I don’t think. I love this community because they’re so resilient. I mean a lot of people are still struggling with things but basically, we banded together we looked after each other and it was a fantastic feeling post-fire that everyone was helping each other get through.

Mallacoota College Principle:

I reckon its the soul of Mallacoota, that we do care about each other, we do look out for each other, it is a village, and it has that atmosphere and we are lucky to have the people we’ve got here.

Acting Senior Sergeant Glenn Owens:

Nothing but praise for the local police, they’re extremely dedicated and extremely connected to their local community. You almost had to tell them to take a break at times because they were so committed. I’ve never been to Mallacoota before and for me, I fell in love with the place, absolutely beautiful part of the world, and I’ve been where actually you’re walking down the street and people would clap you and come and give you a hug. There was a family, they were collecting shells and writing messages and giving them to the local emergency services. And getting a sea shell is a prized possession, I’ve got that at home still. To get that recognition from the community was heartfelt, it was amazing.

Senior Constable Judy Taylor:

I love the place, I love the community policing, and I’ll be here till I die.

Reviewed 13 January 2021

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