Evacuees boarded buses at a relief centre to drive to a boat ramp at Bastion Point before being ferried out to the the waiting naval vessels – HMAS Choules and MV Sycamore – sitting about one kilometre offshore.
Those onboard will be taken on a close to 17-hour journey to Western Port. From there, evacuees will be transferred to centres including in Melbourne and Geelong.
While there was a sense of relief, there was also a number of teary faces as people leave the much loved area shrouded in a blanket of deep, heavy smoke.
James Hack, from Mordialloc, was at the boat ramp in Mallacoota waiting to be ferried to the HMAS Choules with his wife and seven-year-old son.
He said the process on Friday morning had been smooth and the mood was calm.
Mr Hack said he was looking forward to getting home following some “stressful” days spent inside the local cinema and at camp.
He said his son was “doing well”.
“I don’t think he fully comprehends what’s going on.”
Mr Hack celebrated his 39th birthday last night with a camp dinner and some drinks. “It will be memorable”, he said.
George Mills, from Melbourne, boarded the smaller vessel, the MV Sycamore, and described the surreal feeling.
“It’s really quite eerie. We’re watching landing ships coming in to go out to a ship we can’t see,” Mr Mills said.
“We packed up the caravan and boat at 6am and were ready for the 7.30am ferry.
“Buses split up into times, with the more vulnerable people first out.
“We’re on a smaller boat. We’re only allowed to take what’s essential, carry-on baggage and a small blanket.”
State of disaster declared
The Premier declared a state of disaster for East Gippsland Shire, Mansfield Shire, Wellington Shire, Wangaratta Rural Shire, Towong Shire, Alpine Shire, Mt Buller, Mount Hotham and Mount Stirling Alpine Resorts during a late night press conference on Thursday.
“If you can leave, you must leave. If you stay we cannot guarantee we can protect you,” Mr Andrews said.
Mr Andrews said the emergency powers gave all government departments a “singular focus” and allowed for formal town evacuations.
It also gives authorities powers to take over private land for relief centres and temporarily acquire community infrastructure.
The powers are scheduled to run for seven days, though this could change.
Two confirmed dead, 28 people missing
Premier Daniel Andrews declared a state of disaster for six local government areas in Victoria and Alpine resorts late on Thursday, the first time such powers have been used by the state government since being recommended after the Black Saturday bushfires.
At the time of the announcement 17 people were unaccounted for, however on Friday morning Mr Andrews said the number had risen to 28. All 28 people are from East Gippsland.
“We have grave fears for those 28 people,” he said.
“A number of those 17 people declared unaccounted for yesterday have been found, those numbers will move around.”
Police said a second Victorian man had died after suffering what is believed to be a medical episode while fighting the fires.
His body was found about 8.30pm on Wednesday by family at a property in Maraningo Creek, near Genoa.
It comes a day after the body of 68-year-old Mick Roberts was discovered on his property at Buchan.
State braces for worsening conditions
On Friday the state was preparing for potentially catastrophic conditions on Saturday.
Two evacuate now warnings and 12 watch and act alerts were in place on Friday morning and 66 aircraft are available to be used statewide to help where necessary.
A spokesman for Emergency Management Victoria said a large number of fires were still burning.
“There are currently 49 fires burning across the state and 784,000 hectares have been impacted. Seventeen people are unaccounted for and two are confirmed dead,” he said.
“One of the main goals today is to restore access to towns isolated by the fires. We’ll have the Australian Defence Force continue to provide assistance and support as well,” he said.
The threat comes from forecast temperatures of more than 40 degrees in fire-affected areas, dangerous winds and the drying effects of extremely low humidity.
Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said the low humidity could help fires spread more than 20 kilometres overnight, at a time when, in normal conditions, they would move more slowly.
Bureau of Meteorology senior forecaster Dean Stewart said conditions on Friday would aid in evacuation efforts, but things would turn on Saturday.
“Winds will be relatively light across the state today, which is good news when we’re talking about trying to get people out of areas,” Mr Stewart said.
“It will, however, be quite hot in the north-east, with temperatures looking to hit the high 30s and early 40s. In Corryong it will be 39 and Wangaratta will hit 41.”
In East Gippsland, temperatures will be a lot cooler, with thick smoke haze preventing the full force of the sun taking toll.
“Temperatures around the coast of East Gippsland will be in the mid-20s and a bit higher inland, possibly touching 30,” Mr Stewart said.
“We’ve actually seen the past few days that the smoke has been thick enough to block out the sun which has brought about temperatures lower than we’ve forecast. If that occurs again today, we might not reach those higher temperatures in the East Gippsland area.”
Tate Papworth covers breaking news for The Age.