Dr April Armstrong’s log,
December 31, at 1.33 PM
It is 12 months today since the Mallacoota bushfires. A big thank you to all the BFD members, Practice Managers and Owners who assisted with the post-fire efforts. Super thanks to Dr Adam Hill for donating his piloting skills and plane to move staff in and our of Mallacoota while the roads were blocked. Big hats off to Dr Deb Smith and her husband Andrew (skilled PM/IT) in donating their management skills, services and ongoing support – Super thanks to Medical Rescue (Glenn McKay) for arranging the first group or volunteer nurses (x3) and doctors (x2) – the list of thank you’s is long and naming everyone would take a long-time. Many thanks to the RAAF, Navy officers and Army officers who continued to support the Mallacoota Medical Centre with medical supplies and services in the months after the fire. To all the community members – our donations from Sale of toiletries and goods for the children at the local school, the medical equipment from Rotary in Sydney and the media coverage from ABC and the local radio –
Let’s remember these bushfires and those who have helped and how help is still needed in these regions that are now double effected due to COVID
On the outskirts of town – just 1km from the practice – burned to the ground
In memory of the men and women who risked their lives to save home, farms, animals and most importantly people – the community of Mallacoota owes its townsite to these people, strangers from NSW and SA who flew in the fight. The three crews that sat and poured thousands of litres of water over the Mallacoota Medical Centre, a community owned BAL40 building less than 12 months old.
It is 12 months to the day and hour that the bushfires licked the doorsteps of the Mallacoota Medical Centre and for Australian bushfires were thrown into the international media with reports of 4000 people stranded and trapped on the beaches in the isolated Victorian community.
On the 30th December I flew from Sydney to Merimbula (Bega Shire NSW) in anticipation for a two week locum with Dr Sara and her family in Mallacoota, the local GP who had spent many years servicing her community. Bushfires had been at the forefront of my mind with my colleague and friend, Dr Kathryn, having to postpone her skin cancer clinic in Kalgoorlie to fight fires and protect her home in Port Macquarie in November. Reports of the fires in the region leading to the New Years Bushfires in Victoria had resulted in the evacuation of East Gippsland excluding east of Cann River. The fires threatening the Lake Entrance region was not the fire that engulfed the town of Mallacoota. On the 30th December there were ten fires burning in the East Gippsland region, including three that had been burning for more than a month. Weather predictions for the 31st were dire, with wind changes expected resulting in a catastrophic fire danger warning for the region. In addition lightening strikes were the major cause of the fires and further storms were predicted for the Monday afternoon with seventeen new fires starting overnight on Saturday 29th December.
Describing the first time I drove into Mallacoota provides the backdrop for the fires and their ferocity in which they roared down to the foreshore.
My first visit to Mallacoota was a short two day trip – A drive from Sydney as a last minute drop-in to see Dr Sara and Robin who had been working hard to recruit medical staff for the community. We had met at the ACRRM conference in Canberra the year prior and had become good friends as well as developing a business plan and model that would allow the current clinical services to remain financially viable and provide much needed essential services. The turn off at Genoa was much like any rural highway turnoffs but very quickly the terrain changed to resemble the North Queensland Cairns to Daintree Rainforest. The huge hundreds of years old canopy trees blocked out almost all light, resulting in a dark, moist environment that was thick with undergrowth that almost reached the canopy itself. The road was tricky, even for a seasoned rural driver, the road twisted and turned, blind corners, up and down – small stretches where farmland was visible then back into dark thick bushland. Twenty three km of windy road, one entry, one exit. It was this bushland that had not been back burned for many years that proved impossible for firefighters to access.
On the evening of the 29th, one of those 17 lightening strikes occurred 20km east of Cann River in Wingan and despite best efforts the fire was burning through 1200 hectares. On what one would describe as perfect fire-fighting conditions, still and cool, the fire could not be brought under control, travelling 24km overnight, and it was with this knowledge that Sara and her family (and extended visiting family) in-acted their bushfire plan.
I collected the practice car that has been parked up at the airport the day prior to my arrival and was in Coles in Eden when the call came in from Sara. She explained that the roads were closed and they were planning to evacuate as per their plan for any catastrophic fire bush warnings. The additional concern was that regardless of fires, they planned to evacuate, but now there was a sense that the evacuation would be to Eden to sit out the fires in the safety of a larger community that had at least some reasonable firebreaks, less fuel and multiple exits. It was decided that I would make my way to Mallacoota, if possible, and then discuss evacuation with the family the following day. At this point we were uncertain if I would be allowed to enter the townsite as the Princes highway had been closed West of Genoa. With a weeks worth of groceries I tracked out to Genoa to be greeted with a police road barricade but no advice on not going into Mallacoota and a free entry point turning left from the highway. Feeling confident that emergency services would not be allowing people into the townsite if there was danger, I made my way into Mallacoota, stopping several time to speak with drivers going in the opposite direction. Some turned back when advised the only exit point was via Eden and NSW – some pushed ahead for a long detoured route home to Melbourne adding 3-4 hours to the already 7 hour trip.
On arrival I met with Marcus, Sara’s husband and joint owner of the medical business, at the medical centre. I had never seen the new centre and Marcus gave me a tour when he finished topping up the generator with fuel – a necessity in an area that had fickle supplies of power during all months of the year and to prevent cold-chain breeches. The impressive building still looked like brand-new – only opened earlier in the year, the new gardens, freshly painted walls and the lovely carpet and furniture was a reflection on the work and money raised by the community to build the new clinic – stage one in a project to eventually include a nursing home and emergency centre. The clinic had three consult rooms, a psych/telehealth room, pathology and a treatment room with two beds and nurses station. A small kitchen, store-room, PMs office would become my home for the next week and I would become all too familiar with every item of stock that was dutiful accounted for. Little did I know on this first visit that I would be sleeping on the floor under the reception desk in less than 48 hours while burning embers were being beaten off by firefighters as the fire front from Wingan made its way towards to the town.
There is nothing that can prepare you for the full force of a raging bushfire. There were several moments where I stopped and realised that I was, essentially, putting my life in the line of the fire, and in the hands of the expert volunteer firefighters. There was one particular moment when I was in the kitchen making breakfast number three for our sundowning dementia patient by the light of the red-glow, I was slightly overwhelmed with emotion. I had called my sister and two best-friends to let them know where I was and that we were bunkered down in the medical centre with instructions not to evacuate. If the news mentioned a burned down centre it was likely we wouldn’t be seeing each other again. Our two patients who could not be cared for at the evacuation centre included a 17 month old with acute bronchiolitis. Thankfully the filtration system provided fresh clean air, despite the smoke filled air outside. The rest of the sheltering people included a staff member and her family (and dog) and two men who lived across the road who had been ousted out of their house by firefighters who had turned their water and attention to protecting the practice and those sheltering inside. Our firefighters had spent the afternoon on “sick leave” with hypertension deeming them unfit for frontline fire work – but they insisted (thankfully) to help me prep the building, moving gas bottles and anything that would burn easily. We had mops and buckets, bins with water for stomping out spot fires and then we waited.
At about 2am we could see the flames to the North East – and slowly through the night we watched the front head from East to West getting closer every hour. With everyone evacuated the night prior to the community centre and fore shore only those who were staying to protect their homes were left in the community. Despite the fire front being some distance away we were experiencing a weather pattern created by the smoke and heat of the fire. A firestorm is where a wind system is created by the bushfire – we had it all in Mallacoota – the lightening, the rip-roaring thunder, the freaky gusts of wind. The unnatural storm created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty, along with the unpredictability of the fire. Eden was watching – Sara and her family were up all night catching messages from those of us with internet and phone coverage still – unbeknown to me, a request for the code for the locked storage cupboard resulted in a terrible feeling we were going to squeeze into the cupboard to shelter from the fire – thankfully the hall area was safe and that is where we sat with kids, dogs and patients waiting for the fire to hit.
As morning broke we had a smoke-filled dull atmosphere – gloomy and spooky. We could smell the smoke getting thicker as the fire came closer. Updates from fire crews gave as snippets of information. Dawn actually showed some blue sky to the East but within the hour it was pitch black as the smoke completely blocked out the sun. Reality of the situation was now upon us – as we bunkered down with a 30 min alert for a full frontal hit as word arrived that the houses outside the town had been burned to the ground and the fire was makings its way down the main road taking everything in its path. With firetrucks on three sides of the medical centre we could hear the water running over the building as they continually washed the walls and roof down protecting us from the heat and floating ambers.
It is well publicised on how this bushfire ended – a change of wind saved the townsite, the medical centre and hundreds of houses – but still over 100 houses were burned or badly damaged – thousands left stranded with limited food and medical supplies – what many people don’t know is the story that followed. The weeks of conflict with state emergency services, the assistance of the Navy and Airforce in bringing in medical supplies, private planes charted, begged and borrowed as the medical people of Australia came to the rescue of the Mallacoota community – the money that was donated to help with costs of feeding, housing and transporting volunteers – the twenty odd medical volunteers who worked the medical centre to give Dr Sara and her family time to work in the community and for us to work the centre and care for the everyday needs of her patients. This went on for months –
Thank you to everyone who pitched in:
Our medical pilots, their amazing planes, nurses, admin staff, doctors, psychologist – the doctors who magically appeared in the days after the fire and worked 24/7 in our makeshift hospital as I spent the days recruiting, finding supplies and the logistics of getting these people and supplies to Mallacoota despite the ongoing efforts of the local emergency services to STOP us, even to the point of threatening arrests to medical staff. These stories have not yet been told as the trauma and heartache of the fire still lays with me – the anxiety driven PTSD of the smell of smoke, the tears when I think I the trauma – not of a fire but by being abandoned with thousands of patients/tourists – critically ill people with no medical supplies. The feeling of hopelessness, the calls, emails and begging for help. The fire was nothing compared to the mess that was left.
One day I will publish it all. The truth. In the meantime the community is still rebuilding, slowly. The pandemic has impacted the rebuilding of homes, accessing equipment and supplies and processing of claims and funding. Millions that was donated for the bushfires have never reached the people – still MIA.
So how can you support these communities?
Some of the shops in Mallacoota have online sales – consider purchasing online and supporting their small business.
If you are a resident of Victoria, fit, well and healthy (and not in a COVID restricted travel area) visit Mallacoota – spend money locally – buy gifts and food – eat out. Lastly be diligent – be fire mindful, report fires you see, don’t burn or light fires in restricted areas and be fire safe and aware.
For the record the first thing I said to Dr Sara when she raced back to help us – “I didn’t breach cold chain!”