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Leaving Mallacoota

Cut off from the world by fires, the only way out was by ship. Red Cross was there at every step.

5 January 2020

It was just like the airport scene from Love Actually, but this was very real.

As the people evacuated by sea from Mallacoota were finally reunited with their loved ones in Somerville, emotions were raw and the feelings of relief were palpable.

They were among the 4,000 people who’d captured the world’s attention when forced to take refuge at Mallacoota Beach as ferocious bushfires cut off all access by road.

The Somerville Indoor Sports Stadium had been converted to a relief centre for the reunifications to take place and Red Cross volunteers were waiting for them to arrive.

Six of their specially trained colleagues had been on HMAS Choules, sitting with people and hearing their stories during the 20-hour evacuation by sea. More Red Cross volunteers met the evacuees at the buses ferrying them to the Somerville Relief Centre, preparing them for the process ahead. And Red Cross people were on hand inside the relief centre, offering psychological support as a wide range of emotions poured out. 

As busload after busload started arriving, it was hard to say who was most overjoyed to be finally free – some of the 114 dogs who’d made the journey or their human families.

After a long journey at sea, evacuees from Mallacoota arrive by bus at the Somerville Relief Centre.

Inside the centre tears were flowing as people found each other among the crowds.

Families embraced. Children were swept up for hugs. Dogs were cuddled. All around was an almost tangible outpouring of love.


A couple anxiously awaits their grandchildren.

It’s the same compassion and kindness which has been pouring into Red Cross since the bushfire crisis began. The Disaster Relief and Recovery Fund, which helps Red Cross teams to give people the support they need in emergencies, including the current bushfires and disasters yet to come, has raised more than $19 million since 31 December 2019, and the figure is rising all the time.

The volunteers at the front line

Lisa Carr was one of six Red Cross personnel working alongside military personnel supporting 1,200 evacuees on HMAS Choules.


Lisa Carr onboard HMAS Choules.

Speaking from the ship, she said they were all in various stages of their recovery.

“The military personnel are fantastic and made this a really positive experience in what’s been not quite the end of a really difficult time for them, when information has been really scarce and that’s very frustrating for people who just want a little bit of certainty. They made this experience for young and old a really positive one so that’s been really heart-warming.”

She was struck by the compassion the evacuees were showing to each other. “It’s the usual, ‘I’m OK; that person’s worse off than me.’ The humanity is always evident, it just rises to the surface in these really difficult situations.”

The humanity is always evident, it just rises to the surface in these really difficult situations.

Cheryl Colautti has been supporting people at Bairnsdale, including people who have lost their homes.

“There was one couple who came in covered in soot and I said, ‘Have you been fighting fires?’ and he said, ‘That’s an understatement. We lost our house and everything.’ I said I’m so sorry.” Cheryl said she felt she was able to make a difference simply by being with people in the hardest of circumstances.

“There was one lady who was crying and I approached her and sat beside her and put my arm around her. She said ‘I’m sorry. I’ve been so strong because dad’s really sick.’ I said ‘It’s OK to cry. If you don’t let it out it, it will break you. Please don’t feel guilty.’ With that the tears came out and that probably really helped.”

Red Cross volunteers were part of a multi-agency team supporting Mallacoota evacuees.

Volunteer Peta Gapper has been at Lakes Entrance, where more than 500 people were sleeping on the busiest night. She says she did whatever she felt she could make a difference. 

“I did a lot of dog walking for elderly people. I spent my time with people, sitting with them, soothing them. 

“I had a young girl that was crying who said she was terrified. I said. ‘Don’t be. We’re all here together and we’re all here looking after each other.’ She came up to me at the end of the shift and said thank you.

“It’s just a matter of being there, talking to them, learning a little bit about them. Most people love talking about themselves.”    

We’re all here together and we’re all here looking after each other.

Red Cross personnel continue to assist the community who remain in Mallacoota. 20 trained volunteers, rostered in waves for the next two weeks, are providing psychosocial and registration services, as well as providing food and water services at all Emergency Relief Centres.

Red Cross has also facilitated food and water provisions with 10 pallets of water and 640 x food packs arriving in Mallacoota. An additional 600-800 food hampers, water pallets, hygiene item and pet supplies are also being arranged by Red Cross to be trucked by the military from Foodbank to East Sale for rapid distribution to communities in need.

If you or someone you know needs information on the long journey to recovering after a disaster we have helpful resources available at redcross.org.au/recover.

Words: Susan Cullinan. Photos: Matt Lynn and Susan Cullinan.

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