The weak will be given priority for evacuation from the stricken town of Mallacoota while others must make a desperate bushfire choice.
The weak will be given priority for evacuation from the stricken town of Mallacoota while others must make a desperate bushfire choice.

People ‘sobbing’ over agonising fires’ choice

A naval ship has docked in waters off the Victorian town of Mallacoota to evacuate some of the 4000 people trapped by the deadly East Gippsland bushfires.

HMAS Choules, which has the capacity to carry 700 troops, arrived off the coast on Thursday morning from Sydney and the first recovery craft was spotted shortly after 9.30am.

The military vessel is reportedly 1.5km from Bastion Point in Mallacoota due to the low tide.

It's anticipated the evacuations will begin at 7am on Friday, beginning with up to 800 people, and there may be "multiple trips", Premier Daniel Andrews said this afternoon.

The journey to the closest port will take 16 to 17 hours and the boat will return for a "second load" if more than 1000 people register as evacuees, the Royal Australian Navy has advised.

Some locals were seen "sobbing and hugging" as they were asked to make a choice between an arduous evacuation or potentially being stuck for weeks in the town as bushfires continue to rage.

A recovery craft arrives in Mallacoota. Picture: Twitter/@CassieZervos
A recovery craft arrives in Mallacoota. Picture: Twitter/@CassieZervos

Assistant Police Commissioner Michael Grainger said the isolated communities are demonstrating "great patience" and authorities are working through a "prioritisation list".

"We won't be able to get everyone out in one go but we are working as hard as we can with our colleagues from the defence force to extricate those that can be extricated," he said.

"My advice is weather and smoke permitting, we will be able to airlift some people this evening with greater numbers tomorrow (Friday) via sea."

Locals and tourists flocked to the beach on New Year's Eve when the sky turned blood red, orange and black as bushfires encircled the town.

People gathered at the foreshore in Mallacoota. Picture: Kammeron Cran
People gathered at the foreshore in Mallacoota. Picture: Kammeron Cran

 

People escaping the fires at Mallacoota on December 31, 2019. Picture: Instagram/@travelling_aus_family
People escaping the fires at Mallacoota on December 31, 2019. Picture: Instagram/@travelling_aus_family

"HMAS Choules and MV Sycamore (a multi-role aviation training vessel contracted by the Navy) will begin relief operations in Mallacoota this morning, including supporting the relocation of vulnerable and high-priority people to Westernport," the Australian Defence Force said in a statement on Thursday.

Two Black Hawk helicopters and one MRH90 Taipan helicopter were sent to help on New Year's Day.

"These helicopters have been involved in transporting firefighters from Bairnsdale to Mallacoota and transporting the injured and vulnerable from Mallacoota to East Sale for medical treatment by emergency services," the ADF said.

Member for Gippsland and Veterans' Affairs Minister Darren Chester took to Twitter just after midday on Thursday to say that the conditions off the coast of Mallacoota were "s**thouse".

"Excuse the language," he said.

"HMAS Choules barely visible as CO (Commanding Officer) Scott Houlihan leads a liaison team to meet with community leaders in town."

The smoke had started to clear by 2pm, Mr Chester said in an update.

Mr Andrews also tweeted: "But this isn't over yet. Conditions could still worsen. Please follow all directions - and stay safe."

Hundreds of people, many wearing masks, packed into the local cinema this afternoon to hear from emergency services about the evacuation plan.

They were told the evacuation was not compulsory but they needed to make a decision and register to leave.

Commander Houlihan told the meeting people should be fit enough to climb up ladders and stairs on the ship, which they will be taken to on smaller boats.

"We will be prioritising vulnerable people only for relocation via air. Our priority will be to keep families together during relocation," he said.

People huddled around a speaker outside the packed Mallacoota meeting for updates on fire conditions and evacuation procedures. Picture: David Caird
People huddled around a speaker outside the packed Mallacoota meeting for updates on fire conditions and evacuation procedures. Picture: David Caird

The Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Michael Noonan, said troops were working with shipmates in the Fleet Air Arm and Defence colleagues in the Army and Air Force alongside the local fire services "to bring relief to Australians during a particularly difficult time in their lives".

"I'm proud of our people and the work they are doing to help Australian families," he said in a post on his official Facebook page late on Thursday, confirming Friday's evacuation plan.

"Many of them jumped in cars, buses, trains and on planes on New Year's Eve to leave family and friends in cities and towns across Australia, to join the ship and sail within 17 hours of being re-called.

"Their enthusiasm to help during this crisis is outstanding. Their commitment to serve is of the highest order."

HMAS Choules departs Fleet Base East Kuttabul in Sydney on January 1, 2020. Picture: Royal Australian Navy/Benjamin Ricketts
HMAS Choules departs Fleet Base East Kuttabul in Sydney on January 1, 2020. Picture: Royal Australian Navy/Benjamin Ricketts

Emergency Management Victoria deputy commissioner Chris Stephenson told a media briefing at Bairnsdale this morning that a number of holiday-makers wanted to stay in Mallacoota so they could take their cars, 4WDs and caravans out by road.

But due to road closures, including of the Princes Highway, they could be stuck for weeks.

"That could be a number of weeks. That could be two to three weeks," he said.

"We'll offer the opportunity to get as many people out as we possibly can, into a more comfortable place, however, logistically, that's quite a challenge."

The Victorian Fisheries Authority on Thursday said five of its Mallacoota officers were helping out the water police and Navy.

Tony Priest, who had been visiting Mallacoota with his band, told ABC reporter Elias Clure it had been "really touch and go" over the last 72 hours since fire ripped through the area.

He said they split into groups and sheltered inside a small room with their hotel owner when the firefront came really close.

"Just like, sitting, waiting it out, not knowing what is happening and relying on word of mouth, checking the bushfire app," Mr Priest said.

"Obviously in the distance, seeing the red glow approaching and then the ember attack, it was just terrifying."

Mr Priest said it would be nice to go back home.

"I wouldn't mind some fresh air," he said.

"I don't see any other way to sort of get out of here for quite a few weeks. It's pretty unknown."

Mr Clure described the smoke haze that has descended on Mallacoota as "extraordinary".

"You can feel it in your eyes, you can feel it in your lungs and that's made people even more desperate to get out," he said.

 

The body of 67-year-old great-grandfather and town "larrikin" Mick Roberts was identified yesterday as the first victim of East Gippsland's bushfire tragedy.

Mr Roberts was found dead inside his fire-ravaged home in Buchan by his nephew, Jason, who delivered the sad news to family.

The premier earlier on Thursday confirmed Mr Roberts' death and revealed the number of missing persons in bushfires across Victoria.

"I'm sad to have to report that there are at least 17 people that at this stage we cannot account for," Mr Andrews said.

"Their whereabouts is unknown to us.

"It may be some of those people are safe but we hold very significant fears for the welfare of anybody who is missing at this time."

Authorities are bracing for hazardous conditions to return on Saturday along the east coast.

It's forecast to be very hot and windy in Mallacoota, reaching a maximum of 41C.

Follow our live coverage of the Australian bushfires on Thursday here.

Mallacoota Fires. Kane Hartrup and his son Cole 4, wearing masks due to the heavy smoke in Mallacoota on Thursday, January 2, 2020. Picture: David Caird
Mallacoota Fires. Kane Hartrup and his son Cole 4, wearing masks due to the heavy smoke in Mallacoota on Thursday, January 2, 2020. Picture: David Caird
Commander Scott Houlihan of HMAS Choules talks to the hundreds gathered at the town hall meeting in Mallacoota about evacuating to the ship. Picture: David Caird
Commander Scott Houlihan of HMAS Choules talks to the hundreds gathered at the town hall meeting in Mallacoota about evacuating to the ship. Picture: David Caird
Thousands of people sheltered from the fires in East Gippsland. Picture: Twitter/Aileen Brown@ail_brown
Thousands of people sheltered from the fires in East Gippsland. Picture: Twitter/Aileen Brown@ail_brown
HMAS Choules barely visible off the coast of Mallacoota. Picture: Twitter/@DarrenChesterMP
HMAS Choules barely visible off the coast of Mallacoota. Picture: Twitter/@DarrenChesterMP
Commanding Officer Scott Houlihan leads a liaison team to meet with community leaders in town. Picture: Twitter/@DarrenChesterMP
Commanding Officer Scott Houlihan leads a liaison team to meet with community leaders in town. Picture: Twitter/@DarrenChesterMP
An MRH90 Taipan helicopter lands at Bairnsdale airport on January 2, 2020. Picture: David Crosling
An MRH90 Taipan helicopter lands at Bairnsdale airport on January 2, 2020. Picture: David Crosling

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