A naval ship has docked in waters off the Victorian town of Mallacoota to evacuate some of the 4000 people trapped by the deadly East Gippsland bushfires.
HMAS Choules, which has the capacity to carry 700 troops, arrived off the coast on Thursday morning from Sydney and the first recovery craft was spotted shortly after 9.30am.
It’s understood between 500 and 1000 people could be taken from the fire-ravaged town today.
The military vessel is reportedly 1.5km from Bastion Point in Mallacoota due to the low tide.
Locals and tourists flocked to the beach on New Year’s Eve when the sky turned blood red, orange and black as bushfires encircled the town.
“HMAS Choules and MV Sycamore (a multi-role aviation training vessel contracted by the Navy) will begin relief operations in Mallacoota this morning, including supporting the relocation of vulnerable and high-priority people to Westernport,” the Australian Defence Force said in a statement.
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Two Black Hawk helicopters and one Taipan helicopter were sent to help on New Year’s Day.
“These helicopters have been involved in transporting firefighters from Bairnsdale to Mallacoota and transporting the injured and vulnerable from Mallacoota to East Sale for medical treatment by emergency services,” the ADF said.
Member for Gippsland and Veterans’ Affairs Minister Darren Chester took to Twitter just after midday on Thursday to say that the conditions off the coast of Mallacoota were “s**thouse”.
“Excuse the language,” he said.
“HMAS Choules barely visible as CO (commanding officer) Scott Houlihan leads a liaison team to meet with community leaders in town. Hoping to get people on board this arvo.”
Hundreds of people, many wearing masks, packed into the local cinema about 1pm to hear from emergency services about the evacuation plan.
They were told the evacuation is not currently compulsory but they have until 3pm to make a decision and register, Seven reports.
Emergency Management Victoria deputy commissioner Chris Stephenson told a media briefing at Bairnsdale this morning that a number of holiday-makers wanted to stay in Mallacoota so they could take their cars, 4WDs and caravans out by road.
But due to road closures, they could be stuck for weeks.
“That could be a number of weeks. That could be two to three weeks,” he said.
“We’ll offer the opportunity to get as many people out as we possibly can, into a more comfortable place, however, logistically, that’s quite a challenge.”
The Victorian Fisheries Authority on Thursday said five of its Mallacoota officers were helping out the water police and Navy.
Tony Priest, who had been visiting Mallacoota with his band, told ABC reporter Elias Clure it had been “really touch and go” over the last 72 hours since fire ripped through the area.
He said they split into groups and sheltered inside a small room with their hotel owner when the firefront came really close.
“Just like, sitting, waiting it out, not knowing what is happening and relying on word of mouth, checking the bushfire app,” Mr Priest said.
“Obviously in the distance, seeing the red glow approaching and then the ember attack, it was just terrifying.”
Mr Priest said it would be nice to go back home.
“I wouldn’t mind some fresh air,” he said.
“I don’t see any other way to sort of get out of here for quite a few weeks.
“It’s pretty unknown … the fire is said to be 300 kilometres long.”
Mr Clure described the smoke haze that has descended on Mallacoota as “extraordinary”.
“You can feel it in your eyes, you can feel it in your lungs and that’s made people even more desperate to get out,” he said.
The body of 67-year-old great-grandfather and town “larrikin” Mick Roberts was identified yesterday as the first victim of East Gippsland’s bushfire tragedy.
Mr Roberts was found dead inside his fire-ravaged home in Buchan by his nephew, Jason, who delivered the sad news to family.
Premier Daniel Andrews at 1pm on Thursday confirmed the death and revealed the number of missing persons in bushfires across Victoria.
“I’m sad to have to report that there are at least 17 people that at this stage we cannot account for,” Mr Andrews said.
“Their whereabouts is unknown to us.
“It may be some of those people are safe but we hold very significant fears for the welfare of anybody who is missing at this time.”
Authorities are bracing for hazardous conditions to return on Saturday along the east coast.
It’s forecast to be very hot and windy in Mallacoota, reaching a maximum of 41C.
Follow our live coverage of the Australian bushfires on Thursday here.