It’s Tuesday afternoon, New Years Eve, and I’m inside a crowded community hall filled days earlier by the vulnerable, elderly and young, with other community members and tourists milling about inside and outside the hall. Even yelling, aided by a megaphone, I couldn’t be heard above the rapturous applause and cheering as the wave of relief descended across every individual.
The fire front had passed. Everyone was safe. Although the extent of the impact of the fire was still to be known, the threat on their lives had passed and the consequences could be dealt with in the coming hours and days.
My experience at Mallacoota was the most frightening firefight I have ever been involved with. However, the efforts of emergency services members who drew on all their skills, stayed disciplined and followed their training, combined with the co-operation of the community was sensational. Off-duty medical personnel came forward, individuals presented where their expertise could be used, and everyone chipped in.
With 16 tankers across three strike teams from District 2, District 13 and District 14, two local tankers and two FFMV slip-ons and supported by a great Victoria Police and Ambulance Victoria contingent, Mallacoota faced its greatest challenge and survived to welcome in 2020.
It was Sunday when I arrived in Orbost to be briefed on my role at Mallacoota, ironically by a fellow 1993 recruit course member – Commander Rick Owen, who had working tirelessly to hold the fort. A lightning strike had started a fire north-west of Mallacoota and had run rapidly to the coast. Our conversation had raised the potential of a wind change and its impact on Mallacoota, which reminded us of a similar tragic situation at Anglesea in 1983.
On Monday morning I travelled to Mallacoota, avoiding being cut-off, as community members and tourists leaving were directed towards the NSW border and the township of Eden. By Monday afternoon there was no option to leave, as we could see the 16km high smoke plume from the local streets.
We attended a community meeting on the footy oval and advised people of the severity of the risk, what to expect, what we didn’t know and what we wanted them to do to assist. An example was labelling identification on all gas bottles for return later and putting them in the water to prevent explosions. With power disrupted and telecommunications poor on some networks, we identified the window for warnings through this method was closing and potentially unreliable. We decided to use our tanker sirens only when we knew the fire was upon us and community members were briefed on what action to take. Even those who missed the briefing acted when they heard them.
We posted look outs around the townships and we planned 3 circles of defence – outer area, the main township, and the neighbourhood safer place. We were advised that a large part of the community had flocked to another area further to the north on the coast which was likely to be cut off and a couple of tankers and one of our Strike Team Leaders was positioned there.
Perhaps ironically, which I can say in hindsight, a statement made in the early hours Tuesday morning would prove futile. As the sun rose I commented that at least we’d be able to fight the fire in daylight. I’d seen the plume modelling, but did not expect the thickness. Swiftly the smoke and haze blocked out the sun, plunging the region into darkness.
Our look outs, which were the smaller and quicker FFMV slip-ons driven by local FFMV personnel, identified the fire approaching from the west and south-west. Once we understood the severity of the fire front we immediately fell back to the perimeter of the township, our first fall back line, to protect residential houses. Our crews performed diligently despite being hamstrung by fallen power lines and with the remaining gas bottles exploding.
Throughout the fire fight I was receiving great situational reports from the strike team leaders. I was based at the Mallacoota fire station as the local command facility, where the important lines of communication needed to stay open to our strike teams and the ICC at Orbost. This was where I had the frightening experience of defending a fire station from catching fire. With personnel on hoses putting out spot fires in the insulation of the station, shouting to deliver messaging to the communications team inside the building and hear detail back, the emotional experience was intense.
Mallacoota was interface firefighting in its purest form. We knew we had no aircraft support available and no chance of additional support, so our strategy was developed with the knowledge of what resources we had available.
I am extremely proud of the efforts of our people in Mallacoota. They held the lines, stuck to their tasks, and thanks to their endeavour and determination, saved lives and much more of the township infrastructure from being destroyed.