In an unprecedented naval evacuation of civilians in Australia’s history, the first evacuees from the fire-besieged holiday town of Mallacoota in East Gippsland arrived at a Victorian port on the Mornington Peninsula on Saturday morning.
MV Sycamore docked earlier than expected at Hastings about 8am, carrying 58 people, two dogs, one cat and a rabbit fleeing the deadly fires raging in Victoria’s east.
More people will be carried to safety on HMAS Choules, which is also on its way to Hastings and expected to dock about 4pm on Saturday.
And in the town of Omeo, army helicopters were lifting residents and hospital patients to safety after fires closed off all possible road exits and gusting winds drove a wall of flames toward the town.
Omeo, Vic. Right now! pic.twitter.com/XWhyDNu2Qh
— Nuggy25 (@nuggy25) January 4, 2020
The first load of Mallacoota evacuees was transported to nearby relief centres including Somerville after their 20-hour journey, where police, medical staff, chaplains and local council staff prepared the area for their arrival.
“The evacuees are quite vulnerable,” a Victoria Police spokesman said.
There were emotional reunions among family and friends as weary families and holiday-makers stepped off buses, some with their pets, and hugged each other.
Among the group were 16-year-olds Darcy Brown, Emily Wellington and Tahnee Meehan.
Upon landing at Hastings, the girls told reporters it had been a frightening week, made more stressful because of their asthma.
They described how the sky went red, then black as fire started to rain down on Mallacoota.
“It was like 9am, 10am in the morning looking like 12 o’clock at night. Very frightening,” Darcy said.
Emily had gone to Mallacoota for an annual Christmas holiday with Tahnee’s family and they formed a strong bond with Darcy during the evacuation.
The girls said the journey to Hastings was quiet because everyone seemed so relaxed about making it out safely.
For now, their aim is showers and to hug their loved ones.
“Stuff all the clothes in the washing machine,” Darcy said.
Dry land at last for evacuees of the Mallacoota fires after many hours at sea. pic.twitter.com/croEBhjk9b
— Mandy Squires (@mandy_squires) January 3, 2020
The 1000-plus passengers on board HMAS Choules were greeted with fresh bedding (including yoga mats), food and drinking water, showers, toielts and medical personnel to assess their health needs, especially those suffering smoke inhalation.
The Age newspaper in Melbourne reported one of the ship’s commanders kept spirits high by telling weary travelers to “think of the vast navy vessel as a cruise ship without the pina coladas”.
Passenger Dr Andrew Taylor, from the southeast suburbs of Melbourne, said the commander joked about the ship’s kitchen “running out of lobster”, but “would be open all night for their new passengers”.
“Everybody is calm, everybody is smiling. Everybody feels cared for,” he told the paper.
Victoria’s Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp told Nine’s Today Show up to 1085 people have been transported by both MV Sycamore and HMAS Choules.
The evacuations began on Friday morning after hundreds of people registered to leave on Thursday night at a Navy briefing at the Mallacoota town hall.
Their names and allocated vessels and times were posted on a wall. Many sobbed and were visibly distressed as they had to decide whether to stay or leave.
Once transported by smaller vessels, hundreds of families were ushered inside both ships where they were offered food, bedding and a “doggy play pen” for family pets.
Navy's HMAS Choules with evacuated passengers from Mallacoota, Victoria. You can hear the passengers dogs barking. I bet if people had pet giraffes & lamas, the Navy would have found room for them too.
God bless them for pulling off the biggest mass evacuation in Oz history. pic.twitter.com/Hx1hmLj7cZ
— 🇦🇺🇬🇧🇮🇪 ✝️ @EmmaDownUnder ✡️ 🇭🇺🇵🇱🇦🇺 (@emm_downunder) January 3, 2020
Both ships will resupply and head back to Mallacoota to continue the evacuation of others still stranded on the foreshore and in caravan parks as thick smoke continues to blanket the eastern part of Victoria.
Commissioner Crisp said doctors and paramedics were on the ground to treat people, saying helicopters were on standby to evacuate more people when the smoke clears.