Thousands of people fled to the lake and ocean in Mallacoota, as bushfires hit the Gippsland town on Tuesday.
The out-of-control fire reached the town in the morning and about 4,000 people fled to the coastline, with Country Fire Authority members working to protect them. The town had not been told to evacuate on Sunday when the rest of East Gippsland was, and authorities decided it was too dangerous to move them on Monday.
People reported hearing gas bottles explode as the fire front reached the town, and the sound of sirens telling people to get in the water.
By 1.30pm the fire had reached the water’s edge. A local man, Graham, told ABC Gippsland he could see fire in the centre of the town, and 20m high flames on the outskirts where he believed homes were alight.
“We saw a big burst of very big flames in Shady Gully,” he said.
“As I speak to you I’m looking across Coull’s Inlet and there are big flames … and they would be impacting houses. That’s not good at all.”
People in Mallacoota posted in community social media groups estimates of about 20 houses lost, with the school, bowling club and golf club also hit. Guardian Australia has not been able to confirm these reports.
Hundreds more evacuees sheltered in the community centre.
“There are a lot of people at the waterfront jetty, in the lake, on the sand spit between the lake and the ocean, and there are people on a sandbar, and some on boats,” Charles Livingstone told Guardian Australia from the community centre.
He said there were at least 350 people in the community centre, many with children and pets. He, his wife and their 18-month-old baby were at the jetty on Monday night but moved to the community centre to avoid the heavy smoke.
“The CFA advised yesterday they would protect the waterfront jetty and the hard stands that go along the lower lake here, just in front of where we are. They were saying we’ll protect you down there if the worst comes to worst,” he said.
“I’m sure the CFA will do what they said, but the relief centre to us seemed like to best option. They’re pretty busy and we haven’t had an update in a while.”
Livingstone said he was barely thinking about their holiday house to the south of town.
“We’ll be happy to get out of here ourselves,” he said.
“It’s mayhem out there, it’s armageddon … The other issue is how the hell we’re all going to get out of here – there’s one road in and one road out.”
The fire, which hit the town on Tuesday, started on Sunday in Wingan.
Livingstone said there had been “confusion”, with roads closing and reopening, and so he and his family had not left.
The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, said the decision had been made on Monday afternoon that the safest option for people in Mallacoota was to stay there.
“At the community level and regional level [authorities] had to work through what their options were and undertake a risk assessment of that,” Andrews said.
“We decided it would be unsafe to move them back along the Princes Highway.”
Livingstone said the temperature dropped from above 40C to about 20C later in the morning, and people in the water were getting cold.
Community radio in #Mallacoota: "The power is cut. We are isolated. It's a holocaust, basically. Some have been sent to the hall, some to the lake, others have to stay in their homes. There's a lot of thunder. The fires are creating their own weather."— Alt-Rupert (@TheMurdochTimes) December 30, 2019
While speaking to Guardian Australia Livingstone said he heard an extraordinarily loud boom outside – Mallacoota does not have gas lines and many people have gas bottles that are likely exploding in the heat.
Matt Manning heard it too. He spoke to Guardian Australia from his boat in the lake at the back of Goodwin Sands, about 3km from the centre of town.
“It was a big explosion but we don’t know what it was,” he said.
“Up until an hour or so ago it was pitch black, you couldn’t see 10 feet in front of you. It was just insane. [Now] it looks like it’s 8.30 in the evening.”
Manning, who has been coming to Mallacoota for 20 years, said there were about 30 boats out where he was, most of them locals.
He and his wife, their two friends, and his dog had been camping at the foreshore camp park. He packed up the boat on Monday morning, and late last night they all moved to the waterfront to sit out the fire. At about 3am they decided to get in the boat.
“We’re pretty safe here, hopefully we don’t get any hot embers,” he said.
There’s a lot of debris and ash but so far there’s no hot embers. Winds are about 30-40 knots coming from the south.”
Francesca Winterson is in a building on the main street of #Mallacoota and describes the wind, darkness and falling embers as fires burn about 500 metres away.— News Breakfast (@BreakfastNews) December 30, 2019
She says it's too late to leave and fire crews are on hand to offer as much protection as they can. pic.twitter.com/6Tjfb4nyUR
“We are completely isolated,” community radio broadcaster Francesca Winterson told ABC Breakfast on Tuesday morning.
“We’ve been broadcasting for 48 hours without a break and we’re all very tired,” she said. “Now we are here in the station and I’m just watching my town burn.”
The township was under one of eight emergency warnings in the East Gippsland area. More than 200,000 hectares have burned, including about 80,000 just in the last 24 hours. Four people were unaccounted for in Victoria on Tuesday morning, and three more in NSW.
Fire authorities said there have been “significant losses” of property, but it was too early to confirm numbers.