“There was ash everywhere. Burnt leaves, and then all of a sudden the sky went really, really red, and then it just went pitch black. Eight o’clock in the morning. Pitch black,” says Chelsea.
It was Tuesday 31 December and Chelsea and her family had awoken after spending the night sleeping on Mallacoota beach, alongside 4,000 others, all trying to take refuge from the catastrophic fires that surrounded them.
Chelsea and her family – her husband Corey, her two daughters – three-year-old Sam and six-month-old Maggie – had started their holiday in Mallacoota, Victoria just like any other.
They had brought the jet-ski, and had found the perfect place to stay at the local caravan park. They spent their days swimming and socialising. Chelsea remembers the Sunday being particularly hot, 40 degrees or more. “We took the jet-ski out and the weather looked a bit funny, but we didn’t really think much of it.”
By Monday morning, there was news that the fires had gotten a lot bigger. The owners of the caravan park were frantically packing up and leaving. A friend heard someone say in passing that the water was going to be the safest place to be, so the family packed their things and made their way down to the foreshore.
It was a restless night and the next day things got worse. “It got a lot harder to breathe, so we covered all our faces up. The ambulance noticed that we were pushing a pram. They stopped us and said ‘it’s not safe for you guys to be out here, there’s a relief centre about a kilometre up the road.’”
They were forced to walk along the water with the fire bearing down on them.
Chelsea’s husband Corey noticed lights in the distance. They thought that they had made it to the relief centre but it was just the caravan park’s head office. “They saw us with the pram and the three-year-old and they just said “get in here, now.” They put us in there, there were other families there too.
The next few hours would be the most terrifying of Chelsea’s life.
“There were spot fires all around us. My brother, he’s 14, he was very distressed. He kept saying to my Mum ‘we’re going to die in here. We’re going to die.’ My partner wasn’t saying much. He was very grey and just looked really worried. My mum rang my nan, I could hear her, she was in the corridor and she said ‘the fire’s right behind us. I think we are going to die. I don’t know what to do.’
“I honestly didn’t think that we were going to survive…I just couldn’t stop crying. I just held my six-month-old baby girl and I just thought, this is how it will all end. It was just so terrifying,” says Chelsea.
Firetrucks were circling for hours, protecting the office where they were sheltering, and thankfully the fires ended up changing direction and Chelsea and her family were eventually able to make their way to the local relief centre.
Red Cross volunteers were on hand to help them fill out their evacuation forms, provide them with food and water and were even able to bring in special formula for Chelsea’s six-month-old daughter Maggie.
“I can’t believe they got the formula in, when my Mum gave me that I was just in tears. That was the biggest thing, because I thought, what am I going to do with her? I’m going to have to give her something that might upset her. It was just incredible,” says Chelsea.
Red Cross also organised emergency accommodation for the family once they had been airlifted to safety.
“We didn’t expect that. When we saw that they had assigned us our own apartment I just melted…we were going to be grateful for anything, but the fact that they knew we were a young family and put us as a priority…I was just so emotional. I got in the shower that night and just cried.”
Chelsea and her family are safe now, back at home and starting on the long road to recovery. They are still processing the terrible events they have endured, but are grateful for the help they received.
Red Cross are helping people every day. It’s those little things that make you feel that little bit better about what’s happening. If they weren’t there, I don’t even want to think about it. We were just so grateful,” says Chelsea.