The Royal Australian Navy amphibious ship HMAS Choules arrived in Western Port, Victoria on 4 January 2020, having evacuated 1117 residents and holidaymakers from Mallacoota, following the devastating New Year’s Eve bushfires.
The transit to Western Port took about 20 hours, during which time the evacuees had the opportunity to gain an insight into life at sea in a Navy ship, and enjoy some of Choules’ hospitality.
Mr Mark Vos of Maffra was three days into a planned three-week holiday in Mallacoota when the bushfires devastated the local area.
“We’ve been visiting Mallacoota every year for a long time, and we have come to know many of the locals, many of whom lost their homes,” Mr Vos said.
“On New Year’s Eve we took shelter at the wharf, and it was horrific - it was difficult to breathe.
“What sticks in my mind is the sound of the explosions every time a gas bottle went off - you knew that each one was another house lost.”
Mr Vos was impressed with evacuation experience.
“Navy has been great - we were all well looked after and very well fed under what were very challenging conditions,” he said.
After arriving at Western Port, the 1117 evacuees, 135 dogs, four cats, a bird and a rabbit disembarked to meet a combined force of Defence and emergency services personnel standing by to assist the evacuees as they moved towards reuniting with family and friends.
Among the many personnel on the wharf were members of the Victorian Police, the Metropolitan Fire Board, Ambulance Victoria, the State Emergency Service, the Australian Red Cross and the RSPCA, as well as Navy members from HMAS Cerberus and members of the Australian Army.
Choules’ Commanding Officer Commander Scott Houlihan noted the significance of having such a wide range of support services on hand to assist the evacuees.
“The response to the East Gippsland bushfires has been and continues to be a massive effort lead by Emergency Management Victoria,” Commander Houlihan said.
“From our initial arrival offshore of Mallacoota, the success of this mission has been based on the cooperative planning and coordinated execution by so many organisations.
“A number of Victorian Police and Red Cross personnel travelled with us to support the evacuees en route, and we appreciate the efforts of all parties involved from start to finish.
“Of course, I am very proud of HMAS Choules’ ship’s company, who came together at very short notice to sail on New Year’s Day to support fellow Australians in a time of need.”
Following the completion of the disembarkation, Choules’ got straight back to work, working into the night to prepare the ship and load essential supplies and equipment that will be transported back to Mallacoota to assist in recovery efforts.
Operation BUSHFIRE ASSIST 19-20 imagery is available on the Defence Image Gallery: