Shepparton’s Judi Hanlon and Opal Collins didn’t know each other before they were airlifted into Mallacoota in a search-and-rescue helicopter.
Now, the Red Cross emergency response volunteers share a deep connection; the burning and the aftermath of the bushfire-hit Mallacoota will sear their memories for life.
Ms Hanlon, 73, and Ms Collins, 32, are catching their breath between trips to the devastated town, from where about 4000 people have evacuated.
The Shepparton pair, along with other Red Cross volunteers, was airlifted into Mallacoota on January 2 to give help to the town’s bushfire-affected population.
As they were brought down into the town, they were left speechless.
Ms Hanlon said from the helicopters, she, Ms Collins and the other Red Cross volunteers could see “miles and miles” of “damaged, burnt-out and blackened” forests.
“No words can explain the sights you see from the air,” Ms Hanlon said.
“The hard part was these aircraft having trouble because of the density of the smoke; they had to refuel and wait until they could get back out again.”
Ms Hanlon said she felt “extraordinarily saddened and helpless” to see the damage.
“The fire was still burning, but also the burnt-out areas, the whole ecology down there was the saddest part of it,” she said.
Ms Hanlon has been with Red Cross for three years, but this was Ms Collins’ first Red Cross expedition, one she described as a “real eye-opener”.
“I was really thrown in the deep end, but it was good timing,” Ms Collins said.
When the helicopter touched down, Ms Hanlon, Ms Collins and the other volunteers were ready to expect a variety of situations.
Ms Hanlon’s job dealt with helping trauma victims, while Ms Collins registered those eligible to evacuate by boat supplied by the navy, or by helicopter.
Not everyone was eligible to travel, and those travelling by boat would spend up to 20 hours on board.
Red Cross had volunteers on the boats to help facilitate evacuees, but Ms Hanlon and Ms Collins were left behind to deal with those who remained.
“We helped the locals deal with the trauma and registered them for air evacuation,” Ms Hanlon said.
“The people were distressed, tired and shattered with everything that had happened and not being able to get home.
“These people weren’t resilient yet, but they were doing the best they could.
“There was a lot of underlying stress, people were being very quiet and sticking to themselves, drawing on whatever resources they had to cope with what was going on or not going on.
“We noticed people leaving their valuable equipment behind — their camps, their boats, their vehicles — in the vain hope they’ll be able to get them back eventually.”
Ms Hanlon said such behaviour was to be expected; but an angle the Red Cross team hadn’t considered was the confusion experienced by locals who'd felt safe and had chosen to remain in Mallacoota, but who were being pressured by families from outside the town to leave.
“The unknown was frustrating for a lot of people and a lot of visitors,” Ms Hanlon said.
“They had to know there was no other way out. There was a lack of fuel and given there was no way out, people were being asked to conserve their fuel as best they could.
“That was a unique situation to Mallacoota, it was quite isolated.”
Ms Hanlon and Ms Collins’ Red Cross team arrived on January 2, but the most captivating sight for Ms Hanlon was a “blood-red sky” on January 4 about 2.30 pm.
“All you could do was stare and look at it, you just didn’t know what to think of what happened,” she said.
“Then later, that turned to blackness.
“There was no panic, people just thought this is it, and we just have to move forward.”
While Ms Hanlon and Ms Collins were sleeping on gym mats — far from the idea of comfort one associates with holiday destination Mallacoota — they said they didn’t have time to worry about themselves.
“What you were worrying about was other people, and when you woke up, you never thought you weren’t going to help others,” Ms Hanlon said.
Ms Hanlon and Ms Collins both said at Mallacoota they were small pieces in a large volunteer puzzle; as well as Red Cross, emergency services members were significant helpers in calming the distressed.
“There were so many others that were doing their job; anybody you spoke to was showing huge amounts of leadership, gentleness, guidance and respect,” Ms Hanlon said.
Evacuating Mallacoota was just as difficult and unusual for Ms Hanlon and Ms Collins as it was for everyone else; they cruised to Paynesville on a police search and rescue boat.
Last week, Ms Hanlon and Ms Collins returned to their homes, but they will be redeployed to Mallacoota on Thursday.
Ms Hanlon said it would be interesting to go back and check up on the people.
“We will most likely be redeployed for a different role working with the people that remain there and finding out what it is they need,” she said.
“The Red Cross uniform to a lot of people is very reassuring, it’s something people know to trust.”
Ms Collins said it was amazing to watch all helping hands on deck achieve everything they did in such a short amount of time.
“It was an incredibly humbling experience,” she said.
Both Ms Hanlon and Ms Collins said it was a privilege to be able to help those in need.
More about Shepparton locals lending a hand to fire-ravaged communities