‘I will never go back’: Australian bushfire evacuees land in Melbourne

Over 1,000 people and 110 pets transferred by ship after being stranded on a beach by fires

Residents and vacationers stranded on a beach in southeastern Australia landed near Melbourne after a 20-hour journey by ship, relieved to escape terrifying smoke and fire. Video: Reuters

 

Over 1,000 residents and vacationers who had been stranded on a beach by bushfires in southeastern Australia landed near Melbourne on Saturday after a 20-hour journey on two ships, relieved to escape terrifying smoke and fire.

Teenagers, couples, seniors and families, plus dozens of pets – 113 dogs from dachshunds to Alsatians, three cats, a rabbit and a bird – arrived on the naval ships Sycamore and Choules at the port of Hastings. They were then transferred in buses to two relief centres.

“For someone who’s never been in a fire, it’s very, very, frightening. I’m so happy to be here,” said Emily Wellington, a 16-year-old from Melbourne who had been in Mallacoota on a two-week holiday with family friends.

vacuees from Mallacoota arrive on the navy ship MV Sycamore at the port of Hastings. Photograph: Ian Currie/EPA
vacuees from Mallacoota arrive on the navy ship MV Sycamore at the port of Hastings. Photograph: Ian Currie/EPA

She and two other 16-year-olds were among the first 58 evacuated from the smoke-filled town as they have asthma. “They wanted us to get out so we don’t get sick,” Wellington said.

They spoke to reporters outside a relief centre about 65km southeast of Melbourne shortly after getting off the Sycamore at Hastings.

The Choules, a much bigger ship, arrived on Saturday afternoon with 1,025 evacuees on board.

Evacuees from Mallacoota arrive aboard the HMAS Choules at the port of Hastings, Australia. The Australian Navy deployed rescue ships to help evacuate thousands of people stranded in the remote Victorian coastal town. Photograph: Ian Currie-Pool/Getty Images
Evacuees from Mallacoota arrive aboard the HMAS Choules at the port of Hastings, Australia. The Australian Navy deployed rescue ships to help evacuate thousands of people stranded in the remote Victorian coastal town. Photograph: Ian Currie-Pool/Getty Images

Two hundred of them went by bus to Melbourne’s convention centre. Melbourne mayor Sally Capp greeted them on the bus to let them know they would have access to food, drink, showers, insurance services and Red Cross help.

“I’m sorry you’ve been through such a terrible time,” she said, to applause.

James Corrigan spent 24 hours packed with eight friends in an SUV on the beach in Mallacoota, when fires roared through the town on New Year’s Eve. He said it was a relief to be back in Melbourne.

“It was pretty scary. The night before the fire hit, no one got any sleep at all,” he said. “It was pitch black during the day.”

The friends feared for their lives, while they sought shelter near water, he said.

A Mallacoota bushfire evacuee’s dog arrives at the Somerville Recreation Centre south-east of Melbourne. Photograph: Julian Smith/EPA
A Mallacoota bushfire evacuee’s dog arrives at the Somerville Recreation Centre south-east of Melbourne. Photograph: Julian Smith/EPA

“We were worried the fire would be really hot with embers coming through,” Corrigan told Reuters by phone from the bus. “There was a period of not knowing how we’d get out,” he said, referring to the days after the fires died down.

‘Devastating to see’

One of the teenagers on the first ship, Darcy Brown, lost her family home in Mallacoota. They had moved in just a month ago.

“It was so devastating to see. All the tin is flat to the ground. Some of the bricks are still standing,” Brown told reporters.

Vacationers left cars and caravans behind in Mallacoota, not knowing how they will get them back, while some have stayed there while sending children back to Melbourne.

Authorities have said it might take weeks to reopen the one road out of Mallacoota.

Debris of houses destroyed by fires in Sarsfield, Australia, about 200km west of Mallacoota. Photograph: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images
Debris of houses destroyed by fires in Sarsfield, Australia, about 200km west of Mallacoota. Photograph: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

One traumatised elderly woman, Rosa, choked up as she talked to reporters about the fires.

“It was terrible. I will never go back,” she said.

Back in Melbourne, everyone was eager to shower and put their smoke-tainted clothes in the wash. What were they going to do first?

“Hug my parents, definitely,” Wellington said. – Reuters