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Victoria bushfires: exhausted families farewell fire-racked Mallacoota

State and federal authorities had been hopeful of evacuating everyone who wanted to go by the end of Sunday, but will continue the rescue operation on Monday.

After days of life-threatening fire, black skies, oppressive smoke, caring for a sick child and repeated disappointments about evacuation, Montreal-based Meaghan Wegg had had enough of Mallacoota. “I don’t cry much but it definitely came out last night,” she said.

On Sunday priority for evacuation by air was given to young children and their families, the sick and the elderly who had not been allowed on the HMAS Choules that transported more than 900 people out of the area on Friday.

Tim Buckley, Meaghan Wegg and children Jackson and Georgia on Saturday.

Tim Buckley, Meaghan Wegg and children Jackson and Georgia on Saturday. Credit:Justin McManus

The navy was concerned that boarding a naval vessel may require climbing up a short rope and ladder and, therefore, may not be safe for children under five.

But then airlifts were repeatedly delayed because of poor visibility and a Chinook helicopter and RAAF Spartan military transport aircraft were unable to land at Mallacoota airport.

Ms Wegg was less than impressed that she had been stranded yet another night after packing up their tent and preparing to leave with Georgia aged 3 and Jackson aged 5. “I was so angry this morning when they bumped us off the first priority list. We’ve been here (prepared for emergency evacuation) three times.”

As he prepared to finally board a Chinook helicopter headed for the East Sale RAAF base, Tim Buckley made a point of thanking the CFA, ADF, Red Cross and police for the “fabulous job they’ve been doing over the past couple of days”.

Before returning to Montreal later this month, the Wegg/Buckley family will spend time in the Dandenongs where, on Sunday at least, it was raining. “We’re looking forward to some cleaner fresh air,” said Mr Buckley.

Tim Buckley and son Jackson on board a Chinook helicopter with their family Meaghan Wegg and Georgia.

Tim Buckley and son Jackson on board a Chinook helicopter with their family Meaghan Wegg and Georgia.Credit:Justin McManus

While welcome, Sunday’s evacuation by air was slow, as the C-27J Spartan aircraft and Chinook helicopters used for the operation could not fly out everyone at once.

Despite the government and police calls for holidaymakers to leave fire-affected areas including Mallacoota, some campers are reported by locals to be keen to stay on and leave by road.

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However, the authorities were saying Sunday night it could be weeks before the road to the town is reopened.

Mallacoota resident Etienne van der Merwe said there was no rush of campers seeking to escape the usually idyllic coastal retreat.

“There’s not a massive queue of people trying to leave,” said Mr van der Merwe. “I went to the caravan park after the fire went through and I was surprised by the number of people planning to stay.”

But Mr van der Merwe also noted that for the first time since the fire saga began, the local supermarket is running low on food.”There are now empty shelves.” He said fresh milk had run out and that his family was now using the long life alternative.

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On Sunday Don Ashby, who is running aid efforts at the Mallacoota Hall, said: “They’re flying people out while the weather’s good. It’s pretty clear here, we can see the Howe Range for the first time in two days.”

Westwards along the coast at similarly isolated Marlo, firefighter and local Councillor Mark Reeves, reported seeing a Chinook helicopter heading towards Mallacoota, presumably from the East Sale RAAF base.

He said it was a great relief to see clear sky and help on its way to those stranded at Mallacoota.

The 900 who first left Mallacoota arrived at Hastings on HMAS Choules Saturday evening after a near 20-hour trip. HMAS Choules is returning to the coastal town but its primary role will be transporting emergency supplies and equipment. MV Sycamore also helped with the weekend evacuation and has returned.

The airlifts from East Gippsland are part of the biggest ever Australian military deployment for a natural disaster to be rolled out in coming days in fire-ravaged Victoria.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Black Hawk helicopter support had also been provided from East Sale, transporting firefighters from Bairnsdale to Mallacoota.

A family evacuating on board a Chinook Helicopter.

A family evacuating on board a Chinook Helicopter.
Credit:Justin McManus

On Sunday local federal MP Darren Chester was at the East Sale air base to meet evacuees.

“People were happy to get out and very complimentary about the defence and other services,” said Mr Chester.

“The feedback from people is that they are intending to return to Mallacoota at first opportunity for a holiday.”

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