Family’s escape from paradise

Adam Maher surveys homes lost in the Mallacoota bushfire.

“HOPEFULLY the next holiday will be at some boring hotel.”

That’s the wish of Inverloch teenager Connor Maher after his family’s adventure of a lifetime.

The Mahers were at the East Gippsland holiday town of Mallacoota when bushfire tore through the community on New Year’s Eve.

They then joined approximately 1000 others in the first of two evacuations by the Royal Australian Navy, in the biggest relocation of people in Australian history.

Connor, with his father Adam, mother Michѐle, sister Rosita, 10, and dog Juno, spent 30 hours on board the navy vessel HMAS Choules in Bass Strait until they landed at Hastings in Westernport Bay.

What was intended to be a relaxing family holiday in a caravan by the beach turned into a harrowing fight for survival amidst a bushfire – one of many to grip Australia this summer so far.

For 13-year-old Connor, the experience had all the makings of a teenager’s wildest adventure.

“Our New Year’s Eve celebration was chasing a police helicopter and seeing it land,” he said.

The Maher family travelled to Mallacoota on Friday, December 27, anticipating a relaxing week at the foreshore camping ground with friends Kristine Daniels and Brian Borowsky of South Melbourne.

Initially setting up at a campsite near the bush, the Mahers shifted away from the trees after the first fire warnings.

“We were told about the fire on the Monday afternoon after we got back from the beach,” Connor said.

“That day we could see a plume of smoke. It was really high. It was pretty big and it started glowing,” Michѐle said.

Authorities called people to the town’s wharf. They said the fire was approaching but everyone was still safe. Campers were directed to return when they heard emergency services’ sirens – the signal for when the fire was closer.

The blaze was anticipated to hit Mallacoota between 1am and 4am on Tuesday (New Year’s Eve), but at 7.30am, the sirens summoned campers.

Fortunately, the Mahers had enjoyed a restful sleep in their caravan, although Connor slept in his tent and was splashed by people hosing their caravans and tents.

“There was ash falling and it was dark and it was 7.30 in the morning,” Connor said.

The Mahers sought refuge in the town’s cinema with many others, uncertain if their car, caravan and tent would survive the flames.

Inside the cinema, the only light came from lamps powered by generators.

“I was more excited than scared. It felt like the fire was coming slowly and if there was trouble, then we would go into the water if we needed to. People had gone out in their boats for the night,” Connor said.

For five hours the Mahers huddled in the cinema. The screening of movies distracted the anxious crowd, which included many children, and the family kept in touch with relatives by mobile phone.

“You could see ash falling through the lights of the movie being beamed from the projector and I was thinking, ‘Gosh, how close is this fire?’” Michѐle said.

“People weren’t panicking, which was great. The kids managed it amazingly. I’m really proud of them. They were not freaking out.

“The best time for me was when they said the fire front had passed. It was a huge relief.”
Beyond the cinema, ash covered the forest floor, bushland had been denuded with only blackened trees remaining, and smoke hung in the air.

The bushfire had razed the town to the south, west and north, and around Bastion Point and Betka Beach Road. Flames had raced towards Gypsy Point, before surrounding the Top Lake and continuing into New South Wales.

Upwards of 60 houses were burnt, but luckily no lives were lost in the town.

The community, including the Maher family, gathered for a belated New Year’s Eve party at the Mallacoota pub.

Their holiday excitement was not to end after the fire had passed.

On Wednesday, New Year’s Day, the Mahers learnt anyone who wanted to leave would be evacuated by the Royal Australian Navy, with the road out of Mallacoota and the Princes Highway potentially closed for weeks due to the risk of trees falling.

The Mahers registered to leave on the HMAS Choules that sailed from Sydney. On Friday, January 3, their time to leave Mallacoota had come.

Evacuees were bussed to the boat ramp at Bastion Point where they boarded boats dispatched from the HMAS Choules and were blessed with calm seas for the 10 minute voyage to the ship offshore.

The boat motored to a ramp inside the hull, arriving at 11.37am. The ship did not set sail until 6.45pm, with approximately 1000 evacuees on board.

“We were quite lucky because we got the junior sailors recreation room and slept on couches and had a movie screen,” Connor said.

The evacuees were free to wander the ship, often confused by the multitude of levels and staircases, and passed the time by watching movies and sleeping.

“I was a little bit sick but I spent a lot of time on deck, and it was cold and I just huddled up behind a shipping container and listened to music,” Connor said.

“It was comfortable and kind of fun. I learnt a lot about the navy and bushfires.”

Queues for meals extended through the halls, as evacuees were fed naval fare such as fish’n’chips, tortellini, party pies and chicken schnitzel. Rosita was impressed by the offering of soft serve ice-cream.

“I’ve got a good story to tell my friends,” she said.

Juno and other dogs remained on the vehicle deck, to the delight of sailors.

“When I was on the ship, it was like ‘Look where I am, there’s a helicopter”,” Michѐle said.

Initially the ship was to dock at Port Welshpool but continued on to Hastings, where evacuees were taken to Somerville Recreation Reserve.

There, the Mahers were met by Adam’s brother Simon. He brought them home to Inverloch, where they arrived at 7.30pm Saturday, two days after they had planned to return.

The Mahers are yet to learn when they can travel to Mallacoota to collect their car and caravan.

“I’m most thankful to the navy and the CFA. I feel very sorry for the people who lost their homes,” Michѐle said.

Adam is a land surveyor at Beveridge Williams in Leongatha and Wonthaggi, while Connor will be in Year 8 at Mary MacKillop College in Leongatha this year and Rosita in Grade 5 at Inverloch Primary School.

ON THE WAY: The Maher family aboard the naval vessel HMAS Choules en route to Westernport Bay from Mallacoota, (L-R) Connor, Michѐle, Rosita and Adam.

Short URL: https://thestar.com.au/?p=30659

Posted by on Jan 14 2020. Filed under Featured, News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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