On 29 December 2019 I received a call from my Inspector to say that I was being deployed to the fires in East Gippsland. I was told to pack for 3 days and make my way to Doncaster Police Station. From there I drove three hours to Bairnsdale with Sergeant Mark Morgan.
It beggared belief to see the number of families with caravans heading in the same direction – even after all the warnings and a state of emergency being announced.
The Incident Police Operations Centre was set up at Bairnsdale and we had a quick briefing. The fires were getting worse, the weather was not in our favour and Gippsland region police were doing it tough. You could see it on the face of the Acting Inspector and the others in the station that it had been challenging.
That night, we stayed about five minutes from the station in tent city at Swan Reach. There were approximately 400 tents set up by the State Emergency Services that were housing Country Fire Authority, Ambulance Victoria, St John’s Ambulance and the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning. It looked very impressive. I had never slept in a tent before, so this was a new experience for me. I tossed and turned for most of the night and must have nodded off at around 5.30am. I awoke at 7.30am in a lather of sweat. It was already 26 degrees and it was going to hit the mid-40s that day. Showers were set up in shipping containers and the makeshift dining hall even had a Christmas tree to make us feel at home.
At the 1pm briefing we were tasked to attend the Orbost Police Station where we would receive an escort into Mallacoota so we could relieve the crews there.
As we drove in convoy, the smoke thickened, and you could see smoke clouds. The sun and fire glow gave the sky an eerie effect. At about 2.30pm we arrived at Orbost Police Station where I saw that the sky was snowing ash. The day shift was surprised that we were in Orbost as the Princes Highway had just been closed. They advised us that there was no way to get to Mallacoota as the fire made it too dangerous.
We let Police Communications know where we were, and they told us we could not go any further. We were trapped at Orbost with no way out. We travelled to the safest place in town – the Orbost Cricket Club. Several locals had already left their homes and were now camping at the cricket club. We liaised with members of the club and arranged sprinklers for the kids to play under, which also watered down the ground and buildings in case the fire came towards us. I also arranged for a couple of police to go to the local supermarket to buy Zooper Doopers for the kids.
By 4pm the temperature was 44 degrees and the wind had picked up significantly. At around 5pm the sky started to turn black and an eerie feeling crept over the town. I could see the red glow of the fire in the distance.
At around 8pm we lost all power in the town. By then there were around 300 people at the cricket ground. We sourced bottled water and toilet paper for the residents and police. People from neighbouring Buchan and Bruthen started to come into town on mass. They looked absolutely shattered and their emotions were raw. Some had lost their homes or had got out by the skin of their teeth. I contacted the local publican and chaplain from the area to provide an extra level of support.
At around 10 or 11pm we lost phone contact. The only police radios we had were in our vehicles. Police Communications radioed that the Air Wing was on their way with additional firefighters but unfortunately the chopper couldn’t land due to the thick smoke. The fire warning siren went off in town to say that the fire was close. This was getting serious. I withdrew our traffic management points, sent a crew to wake up the day shift and had them all return to the cricket ground.
We were advised the fire was coming directly for us and to move the rest of the public to the cricket club. We had approximately 400 people in our care by now. The hot ash and embers started to rain down. One ember landed in Mark’s eye, but we managed to wash it out. I noticed that the fire had started its own fire storm and the lightning strikes were coming thick and fast on the outskirts of town. You could hear and feel the fire coming. I wanted to speak to my daughters but with no reception that was out of the question. I could not dwell on that. We had a job to do.
Luckily for us, the wind changed, and the fire moved away from the direction of Orbost. The feeling of relief was profound. Monitoring police radios, we knew that police and community at Cann River and Mallacoota were now under attack. As we now know, the fire went through there with brutal devastation with most survivors forced onto the beach at Mallacoota. The images of families retreating into the water stunned Victoria and the country. It was hard listening to other police on the radio, but they remained calm and professional. We were all thinking and praying for them.
The sun rose, hidden by the smoke. We took turns sleeping for a few hours in the vehicles, as we were still arranging accommodation. Some of us worked some very long shifts. We were all focused on our task and wanted to support the community of Orbost and keep them safe.
The Red Cross and local council arrived and took over the recording of the evacuees and assisting the locals that lost or couldn’t get back to their homes. The council also delivered a generator and we were able to get a cuppa and some much-needed food supplied by the rotary, local hotels and supermarket.
Over the next few days, we missed New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day as the days and nights merged into one.
It took three days for the power to come back on in Orbost.
I met some amazing and stoic people in Orbost. As much as it was a full-on experience, it was also a great type of policing and I remain humbled and grateful to have been able to bring some comfort and help to the community we serve.
We took a bus home on 2 January 2020 – five days after we had set off to help.
Reviewed 13 January 2021