It was with a mixture of relief and sadness that volunteers with the Theos beach mission at fire-ravaged Mallacoota in East Gippsland boarded a Navy boat to take them back to Melbourne this afternoon.
Chris Mulherin, who, with his wife Lindy, acts as team parents to the 17 young people in the Theos team, told Eternity the youth were among about 1000 people being taken by sea to Melbourne. He and Lindy would stay back to help clean up after a bushfire swept through the town on New Year’s Eve.
But after Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews declared a State of Disaster last night, it was considered necessary to evacuate the beach mission teams.
“If we didn’t get out, we would be seen to be reckless, even though most of the team – in fact, I think it’s true to say all the team – would prefer to stay, because they’ve got these strong connections with local youth, many of whom have lost homes, and connections with the town.
“It’s very difficult to leave and some of them almost feel like they’re deserting their friends in the town.” – Chris Mulherin, team parent, Theos beach mission Mallacoota
“We’ve been coming here every year for over 30 years now, so everybody in the town knows about the youth program run by Scripture Union and the Scripture Union Family Mission and the town’s very supportive of what we do.
“So it’s very difficult to leave and some of them almost feel like they’re deserting their friends in the town. And that’s part of the reason why Lindy and I are staying, to maintain a bit more of a connection,” he says, explaining their plan to stay until the Princes Highway is reopened. This might not be for another two weeks or more.
“We’ll do the rounds and say thank you to people and let people know that this team did not want to leave, but it was necessary.”
Mulherin, whose son Matt was part of the Theos team, said the young people did not seem to be traumatised by their experience, and were laughing and happy as they waited for a bus to take them to the dock, although “some of them will probably burst into tears as soon as they get home to their parents.”
He said the team had plenty of warning the fire was coming, but it was too late to evacuate because the Princes Highway was already closed.
“We knew that it was going to hit sometime in the early hours of the morning, and we had some kids up during the night keeping watch, so at 5 o’clock we got everybody up and had breakfast and then walked across the oval, holding hands with wet tea towels across our faces, to the refuge and then sat in the refuge for 10 hours as the fire went through,” he said.
“The SUFM team was on the beach and the Theos team was in the refuge. The SUFM were in the church first but then they got told to leave the church because it’s a wooden building and move down to the beach.”
Being in the City Hall Cinema refuge was more uncomfortable than frightening, he said, because the CFA (Country Fire Authority) believed it could protect the building.
“It was very hot, very smoky, there were maybe 600 people in there, lots of children, lots of dogs, they showed four Disney movies. We could hear the wind outside. Every time the door was opened, we could see the orange sky. It was meant to be broad daylight, but it was like the middle of the night except it was quite orange.
“We could hear the gas bottles exploding and thought, ‘That’s another house gone’.”
“We could hear gas bottles exploding when the fire hit a house because they don’t have natural gas piped to the house, they all have gas bottles. So, we could hear the gas bottles exploding and thought, ‘That’s another house gone’.
“We spent our time chatting, trying to be useful, wandering around with water bottles, spraying people, trying to keep people cool and refilling water bottles. It was very sad to listen to some people’s stories as they got news of homes lost.
“We eventually got out about two in the afternoon. It was still dark because there was so much smoke. Even yesterday morning visibility was only about 150 metres. Today it’s lifted a bit although it’s very smoky today.”
Mulherin said although tomorrow was to be another dangerous fire day, it would not be so in Mallacoota because the disaster had already hit. Any fires would be spot fires that could be easily put out.
“It’s good to see the best of humanity for looking after each other.”
Asked what he had learned from the experience he said: “It’s remarkable how people cope.”
“Our team has coped extremely well, but their parents have been more stressed than they have – that’s a communication issue because, when you’re on the ground, you know the facts, but when you just read media headlines like ‘5000 people trapped by fire’, it sounds awful.
“While that was technically true because we couldn’t get out, it didn’t mean we were in any danger of dying. We are by the water and as long as you obey instructions, you’ve got a good chance of being okay.”
He said there were lots of good stories of local people pitching in and doing what needed to be done, and of shops not charging people for necessary goods.
“It’s good to see the best of humanity for looking after each other,” he said.
Bible Society Australia would love to help by providing Bibles for churches and chaplains to distribute in communities affected by the recent events. To apply for Bibles and to let BSA know of more practical help that you could use at this time, go to biblesociety.org.au/relief.