How inferno brought out the best in Mallacoota
It was the perfect firestorm. Of all the bushfires raging across southeastern Australia, the enormous blaze circling Victoria's eastern tip was made to grab global attention.
By the time it hit Mallacoota in the last hours of 2019, the world was watching. It saw amazing scenes.
Thousands of stranded holiday-makers trapped by flames that the The New York Times said "turned the sky inky black, then blood red". A mass rescue by sea and air that some compared with military retreats under fire. Armed forces called in to reinforce exhausted firefighters facing firegrounds the size of European countries. And for the cameras: tears and fears, kangaroos, koalas and kids.
It was Towering Inferno meets Dunkirk with a touch of Jaws, except the monster terrorising the tourists wasn't in the water in front. It was in the bush behind, deadlier than any shark.
Now it's week three and the biggest reality show on earth has moved on. Ellen DeGeneres isn't calling any more.
The New York Times and Le Monde and Fleet St correspondents have returned to cities shrouded in smoke haze that brings the disaster eerily closer to where most Australians live.
In Christmas week, Mallacoota was swollen with the annual summer influx of holiday-makers who ignored the risk of wildfire the way most of us do. Many must have driven through smoke to get there in time for the holiday from hell.
Now they are gone, shipped out by the defence forces by sea and air or taken out by convoy into New South Wales, where forest highways are better protected from fallen trees by routine clearing on both sides.
Mallacoota's population has shrunk to a bare minimum. Left behind, cut off except for special deliveries of essentials, are a few hundred locals and dozens of emergency services people of all sorts, working together to restore roads and power to a vast area of still smouldering bush.
Some are still fighting flames that will threaten dozens of districts until autumn. It's the same in at least four states, where fierce and sometimes fatal fires have scorched communities, farms and bushland in a huge arc from Kangaroo Island to southern Queensland.
The story of Mallacoota is in most ways their story, too. After the terror comes the tyranny of hard work and worry.
NEXT YOU COUNT THE COST
Now the adrenaline has worn off, the reality of the task ahead sinks in, especially for those who lost their homes and face the frustration and financial cost of finding somewhere to live while waiting to rebuild. More than 100 houses burned down in the district, adding to a national toll above 2000.
What Mallacoota didn't lose was a life, and what a blessing that is. In other communities charred by fire this summer, as in other tragedies over the years, flames have brought death as well as destruction. So far, 27 people have died across Australia since spring and the fire season won't end until autumn rains come. If they come.
There's shock and exhaustion in Mallacoota but relief still outweighs grief. You feel it as you walk around.
As a friend who lives there said thoughtfully on returning to his house after a tense 24 hours: "This isn't Marysville." Referring, of course, to the Victorian town wiped out with terrible loss of life in the Black Saturday fires of 2009.
He sympathises with neighbours and friends who have lost homes and cars and caravans. But he points out such losses are relative, that Mallacoota has been wounded in an encounter that could have destroyed it.
Residents are bruised and tired but not facing the ordeal of funeral after funeral, week after week, the way it was after Black Saturday and Ash Wednesday. It could have been so much worse.
People can joke about their plight as they get on with helping each other. Paul Preston, who runs the Beachcomber Caravan Park with his wife Debbie, is one of many.
He and fellow Lions Club members have formed a stand-in garbage crew. There are no garbage trucks in town so they use a front-end loader to lift the trash into a borrowed tipper. Job done.
Paul points out the ruins of a mate's house, garage and new car. Parked in front of the wreckage is an unregistered Commodore, complete with a $500 for sale sign and totally untouched by the flames. Things like that have happened all over town.
Retired local policeman Mark "Trigger" Tregellas avoids heroism. He copped valour awards and a PTSD diagnosis after death-defying experiences in recent years, one involving a psychotic man trying to incinerate himself with petrol; the other rescuing a couple on a shipwrecked catamaran in a storm.
When the fire jumped from the bush onto their property, Tregellas and his wife Cate took their three daughters and frightened house guests to shelter on the foreshore. Next day he helped fight spot fires around town. It should have been easy but he found trouble again - an "empty" shed in which an old local identity, long dead, had stored ammunition, paint thinners and aerosol cans. When the bullets started exploding, "Trigger" bolted.
Cate Tregellas later wrote a wry report headed "13 things no one tells you about bushfires", which starts with "black snot" and points out that trying to rescue goldfish in plastic bags doesn't end well. Her story went viral and has been read all over the world.
But underneath the jokes is a family coping with conflicting emotions. They are physically unhurt and their house is damaged but still standing, thanks to gutsy neighbours who hosed down two spot fires. But what about next time? It makes it hard to sleep.
Black humour doesn't diminish the disaster or the work needed to fix the damage, but it gets people through the day. It's the same after every fire, everywhere.
To see what harm a hot fire does in a few hellish minutes is always a shock, no matter how often you see it. But to see what survives can also surprise. If it is a miracle that most of Mallacoota is still standing, it's a privilege to see the people there tackle adversity.
Every fire throws up stories, some more unlikely than others. The story of Patrick "Call me Patty" Boyle, the barefoot hunter who saves burned koalas, stands out. That's why he is getting fan mail from Europe.
At 22, Patty is a fresh-faced young bloke who sports a mohawk haircut and stalks deer like the last of the Mohicans. He was born in Mallacoota, making him one of a minority in a place that has attracted visitors and dreamers since Henry Lawson stayed here in 1910.
Lawson once wrote a poem about a bushfire bringing together enemies at Christmas time. Fires still have that effect of forging unlikely friendships.
Patty Boyle left school at 15 to be apprenticed to the town butcher but, as happens in seasonal places, winter trade was so limited his boss couldn't afford to pay him year round. He has moved to the local boat builders to learn a second trade.
Like a lot of country people, Patty hunts in his spare time. Unlike most, he does it barefooted, taking his chance with snakes, stakes and bullants. His theory is that it lets him move more silently and saves on boots. It clearly lets him get close to wildlife.
Since the fire, he has used local knowledge and bushcraft to rescue "12 or 13" burned koalas so far, plus a few kangaroo joeys. If the injured koalas are not on the ground and not too high up, Patty climbs the tree, encourages them down and gently wraps them in a blanket.
At first, he delivered injured animals to local volunteer wildlife rescuer Sue Johns, then to state government wildlife officers who set up at the mud brick community building next to the sports ground. A local farmer's son, Jack Bruce, also helped volunteer veterinarians bring in animals until he had to return to Melbourne to work last week.
While experts concentrate on treating and feeding the animals, Patty scouts the bush looking for new patients. He wears a camouflage shirt with a "Responsible Hunter" badge. When not saving native animals, he hunts feral deer that compete with them, and keeps family and friends in meat in a town where the gap between rich and poor is reputedly wider than in any country town in Australia.
He is delighted so many wild creatures survived the fire. Snakes, lizards and ants are plentiful, he says, suggesting they retreat deep enough underground to beat the heat. Besides the surviving koalas and kangaroos, he has seen "heaps of wallabies", a big goanna and an echidna in the moonscape of ash and charred trees.
The temporary animal hospital is as highly organised as a Girl Guides camp. Departmental staffers in various uniforms hug clipboards and koalas and smartphones.
Local volunteers keep up a constant supply of fresh gum leaves to feed the animals. A retired couple, Marion and George Trewin, wash and deliver a carload of old blankets and sheets every day to keep the "patients" in clean bedding until a RAAF aircraft arrives to fly the sickest koalas to Melbourne.
Meanwhile, a few streets away, the big CFA shed is a hub for firefighters and the rainbow coalition of uniformed services working with them. It is an object lesson in willing co-operation between people from at least eight services.
Volunteer fire crews from as far as Carlsruhe and Maldon in central Victoria are there with their trucks, linking up with full-timers from the Metropolitan Fire Brigade.
Soldiers from Adelaide came in all-terrain Bushmaster vehicles seconded from Puckapunyal. Air Force and Navy people are helping. A Victorian Fisheries Authority officer has switched roles to deliver rolls. He jokes he is "the tuck shop lady" but it's a vital job. An army marches on its stomach: fire crews and chainsaw operators can't work without constant food and water.
The soldiers are a hit because they tackle their tasks quickly and without debate. One day they patrol the district, clearing drains and gutters in case of expected rain. Next day they load boxes of food onto their trucks to drive to Cann River, which is cut off from normal supplies by the Princes Highway closure. It is practical "housekeeping" but it is symbolic as well as useful: just seeing the uniform reassures residents they are in safe hands.
Escorted convoys go over the border to Eden. It's a one-way trip for holiday people; only permanent residents are allowed back in a steady trickle.
Earlier evacuees have left hundreds of cars, caravans and trailers lined up on public land around town. Police and SES volunteers go with the convoys, the SES packing chainsaws in case fallen trees block the road.
The damaged highway to Orbost is keeping several districts cut off until it can be repaired. Damaged power lines are another big problem. Hundreds of poles need inspection, replacement or repair over coming weeks.
Until then, a diesel-powered generator is supplying limited domestic electricity at a cost of 8000 litres of fuel a day (flown in at huge expense) and rising to 15,000 litres a day as more houses and businesses are included. Using so much carbon fuel is the price the locals pay to have electric light, television and stoves but they are not complaining.
LIFE GOES ON
In shared adversity, rival factions find common ground. Those who opposed clearing a few trees on the western end of the airstrip to make it safer for aircraft are now happy to use supplies flown in and to see loved ones (and koalas) flown out.
They are lucky the town sewerage system is working. An enormous Mallacoota Gum, one of only a few in existence, split and fell during the fire. Most of the trunk fell away from the sewerage pump station but one fork fell back across the building. It crumpled the roof and knocked out a wall but narrowly missed a vulnerable access valve into the pressurised main sewer pipe.
If the valve had been hit, it would have spurted a geyser of raw sewage 20 metres high, according to the extremely relieved engineer who runs the pump station. He pales at the thought of what it would have been like to have thousands of people and a broken sewer system before the evacuation.
The good luck ran out when the fire hit the district's biggest employer and income earner, the Abalone Fishermen's Co-operative, on the edge of town.
Rules against clearing vegetation on the boundary meant the fire got too close and caught hold of the main abalone processing plant. Just a few metres either side of it, nondescript buildings of little value survived unscathed. As with all fires, a lottery.
In some, of course, winning or losing is the difference between life and death. If the miracle of Mallacoota is that no one was killed there, then the miracle of other fire-hit communities around Australia is that the casualties have been limited to 27 so far.
There is no hierarchy in tragedy but maybe the death of Samuel McPaul near Albury on December 30 captures the essence of what we call the Australian spirit but is, in truth, probably universal.
Samuel was a volunteer firefighter. He was 28. His partner Megan is expecting their baby in May.
Nothing can replace Samuel but when his child is born, it will be a reminder that life goes on because of the selflessness of people like him.
Samuel McPaul probably never dreamt he'd ever be called a hero but it's fair enough to remember him that way. Where there is courage, there is hope.