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Leave or remain a grim choice in Mallacoota

Anglican priest Chris Mulherin shares what it was like to be trapped in Mallacoota as the fires raged

A car burns in Mallacoota

PHOTO: all photos by Chris Mulherin

By Chris Shearer

February 4 2020 

It’s 7am on the last day of 2019, and daylight should be streaming across the oval at Lions Park in Mallacoota. Instead the sky is dark. Darker than it was an hour earlier, when the light creeping over the horizon began to turn the smoke in the air a kind of orangey-brown. Now the world has a red tint, and the light is coming from the west, from the direction of Wingan River. The Revd Dr Chris Mulherin, an Anglican priest from Melbourne, watches for a while, tracking the darkening day through photographs. Embers and burnt leaves flit by in the noisy gusts. The smoke thickens the air. It’s almost heavy. It flavours everything, makes everything smell. The fire is nearly here.

Chris arrived in Mallacoota on 28 December with his wife Lindy and 17 young people, mostly Anglicans, from the Scripture Union Theos team. For more than 30 years, Theos has been coming to Mallacoota as a youth outreach initiative. The team sets up in the Mudbrick Hall, known as “the Muddie”, on the edge of Lions Park, putting in pool and table tennis tables, couches, feature lighting for activities that might entice the town’s local and visiting young people.

Beyond the general fire risks in East Gippsland and a fire near Bruthen, there hadn’t been any concerns about fires among the team in the days leading up to the trip. Mallacoota didn’t seem to be at serious risk. But by the 29th a fire had grown out of control at Wingan River and was heading towards the Princes Highway. On the morning of the 30th Don, who ran the Muddie for the local arts council, asked Chris if they could use Theos’ trailer as a stage for a community announcement. A member of the CFA told the several hundred residents and visitors gathered on the oval that the fire could blow towards the town, and Mallacoota now needed to take notice.

“I don’t think people were seriously contemplating the real possibility that things were going to get that bad yet,” Chris says. But even by 11am smoke had begun drifting through town.

Around 4pm, the Theos team had settled into their regular Bible study when their phones began going off. Someone said: “There’s an alert that the fire is going to hit Mallacoota at 5 or 6 tonight.” Chris looked at his own phone and saw the same Victorian Emergency Alert. In the following hours, that message would prove to be a misprint, with the expected time of the fire’s arrival actually slated for around 5-6am the next morning, but it put the risks into stark relief. Chris ended the Bible study and asked the team to talk about how they felt. They wrote their feelings on the whiteboard they’d been using for study. Excited. Worried. Anxious. Filled with adrenaline. Bit nervous. Quite scared.

That night, the team slept inside the Muddie rather than in their tents, with two of the team awake at any one time as sentries. Earlier in the evening, the CFA had told them if they heard sirens it meant the fire was about to hit and they should make their way to the refuge – the community cinema building just across the oval. Chris and Lindy were staying in a unit about 400 metres away, but when first the power and then the phone network failed, they decided to sleep in their car next to the Muddie.

At 5am, the team decided to have breakfast and move across to the cinema before the sirens started. They wrapped wet tea towels around their faces, and one pushed a wheelie bin full of wet blankets in case they got caught out in the open. Inside the cinema were around 600 other people seeking shelter. They sat in the seats or lay in the aisles either side. The smoke was here too, and it was hot, noisy, dark.

Two members of the Theos team shield their faces from the smoke in Mallacoota

For the rest of the morning, the Theos team talked among themselves or “wandered around trying to be helpful one way or the other”. They sprayed water on people struggling with the heat, and a few of those trained in first aid were conscripted by the first aid station to walk around looking out for anyone struggling to breathe or on the verge of fainting, although there weren’t many. After a while, Chris began to hear dull thuds every now and then. He knew what that sound was – gas bottles exploding.

“It made it obvious that the fire was really out there and doing a lot of damage. I mean, it wasn’t right outside the cinema, but it was in town.

“Some of the people didn’t hear them, or did hear them and didn’t realise the significance. Other people, well, we just sort of looked at each other and knew what that signified. It was what it signified more than anything. These were houses going up.”

By late morning, those in the refuge emerged into a surreal world of dense smoke and orange skies. Chris walked down to the pier and watched the fires creep through the bush on the other side of the water, the occasional burst of flame rising above the trees indicating that another house had been swallowed up. About 185 homes around Mallacoota were either destroyed or damaged by the fire that morning.

For the Theos team, the question now was how they could help. On the afternoon of 2nd they held a free BBQ for the community, and later that night opened the youth centre. Meanwhile, the team talked about the possibility of evacuating. HMAS Choules had been dispatched to Mallacoota and would be taking 1200 or so people on the 3rd. The team didn’t want to be a nuisance by staying, and they also didn’t want to abandon their friends here. Later that night, the decision was made for them: Premier Daniel Andrews declared a state of disaster across large swathes of Victoria’s east, and Theos had no reasonable grounds for staying put.

“Everybody agreed, but everybody was reluctant,” Chris says. “They were pretty sad to leave.”

Chris and Lindy saw them down to the pier at 1.30 on the 3rd. They had decided to stay.

“They were not going to need us on the boat,” he says. “We thought we might be out in a couple of days with a car or couple of cars. And the local Anglican minister [the Revd Jude Benton] encouraged us to stay; it was just obvious that a lot needed to be done in town and as long as we weren’t in the way we were happy to stay … The bottom line was as long as Jude thought it was useful, well then who were we to disagree?”

Over the next few days, Chris and Lindy did what they could to support Jude and those people who had lost so much. It wasn’t easy.

“We didn’t have long conversations with anyone, [just] short conversations with quite a few people. A lot of them didn’t involve a lot of words anyway. Sometimes they just involved a few tears and a hand on the shoulder to say ‘I care’. I mean what do you say to somebody who says … ‘I lost everything’? What do you say to someone like that? You can’t say anything. You can’t make it better. You just stand in silence or you groan or you put your hand on their shoulder.

“Surreal is the word I keep coming back to. It’s a weird, unreal environment. You just don’t bump into people every day in the street in Melbourne who say ‘Everything I have was lost in a fire last night’.”

By 8 January, it was clear the roads would remain closed for a while yet, and the emotional stress of uncertainty, the physical discomfort of smoke so thick it sometimes turned day to night, were taking their toll. On the 9th Chris and Lindy were evacuated by an Australian Army Chinook helicopter. It kept its loading ramp down as it flew along the coast, and through this opening they looked out onto mile after mile of scorched bushland. It was like that for a long time over Gippsland.