The Department of Defence confirmed on Saturday afternoon that flights had been “grounded for now”.
A spokesperson said before the sea-evacuation on Friday, a series of community meetings led by Victoria Police and local emergency services and community leaders were conducted to explain options for evacuation and to organise self-registration for evacuees.
“During the meetings it was explained that for children under school age, the elderly and the frail, it was preferable to move them by air, as boarding a Naval vessel may require climbing up a short rope and ladder,” the spokesperson said.
The department said 25 children and elderly citizens had been flown to the RAAF base in East Sale on a Spartan aircraft on Friday night.
Minister for Defence Personnel Darren Chester tweeted at 3.50pm on Saturday he was “disappointed to report the Spartan aircraft unable to land at Mallacoota due to poor visibility and couldn’t bring anyone out, or deliver supplies at present”.
“Hopefully conditions will improve and and all aircraft based at East Sale RAAF Base will be back in action,” Mr Chester, who is the Member for Gippsland, tweeted.
Sarah Beer, who has children aged 1 and 3, said the sky had turned black on Saturday afternoon and their caravan on the foreshore was being soaked with water as a precaution.
“It’s pitch black outside now so I am a little bit scared – we are getting another attack coming through,” she said.
Ms Beer said they were told that only able-bodied adults and school-aged children would be evacuated via HMAS Choules.
About 1100 people – along with their belongings and pets – were safely evacuated on Friday aboard Navy ships HMAS Choules and MV Sycamore.
In hindsight, Ms Beer wishes she had been on a ship. “It was put to us we didn’t have a choice,” she said.
“Both of my children have shown respiratory issues because of four days of constant smoke. We need to get out of the smoke but there are no planes or choppers going anywhere. We are still stuck.”
Tim Buckley, who was holidaying in Mallacoota with his Canadian wife and children aged 2 and 5, queued to register for evacuation.
However Mr Buckley said his file was marked V for “vulnerable”, because he had small children, and was told he would instead be airlifted out of the town on Friday night.
“One of the biggest ironies of the situation is people who were marked with a V are still here,” Mr Buckley said.
Mr Buckley’s family spent Friday night on the floor of the Mallacoota Cinema after both a Chinook helicopter and RAAF Spartan military transport aircraft were unable to land at Mallacoota airport.
He said they went to the cinema at midnight when the aircraft were unable to land because they had packed up their tent and left it in a car in the middle of town and donated all their food and supplies.
“There were several Red Cross ladies at the cinema who were just awesome,” Mr Buckley said.
He said the Red Cross women had donated their own houses to stranded families with young children and were themselves sleeping on mats on the cinema floor.
Mr Buckley said it was “a bit of an emotional blow” when the aircraft had been unable to land after circling overhead and the operations manager informed them their flights had been cancelled.
However, he said his children were OK and had enjoyed the adventure of sleeping on the cinema floor.
“I asked my five-year-old if he liked Mallacoota and he said he loved it,” Mr Buckley said. “But I think it’s going to be a hard sell to bring my wife back here.”
The family and 21 others were taken back to the airport on Saturday afternoon to be choppered out on a Black Hawk or Chinook.
However the flights were again cancelled and the group bussed back to the cinema.
“It’s pitch black here again,” Mr Buckley texted on Saturday afternoon.
“We’re on a bus full of elderly, young children, babies and someone with a disability.”
German Kai Kirschbaum, who was holidaying in Mallacoota with his wife Deniz and three children aged between 1 and 5, were also among those stranded.
“Yesterday the boats went with people sufficiently fit or children beyond school age and therefore we are basically still waiting to be carried out by aircraft,” Mr Kirschbaum said.
“We are hoping there is a chance to get out today via aircraft but as we all know weather conditions and smoke conditions will worsen over the afternoon so we might be stuck for another 24 hours until things get better.”
The Defence Department said in the next five days HMAS Choules and MV Sycamore would continue providing relief operations in Mallacoota, including supporting the relocation of vulnerable and high-priority people to Westernport.
Jewel Topsfield is Melbourne Editor of The Age.