HMAS Choules Completes Fire Evacuation Mission in Mallacoota

An LCM8 "Mike" boat from HMAS Choules ferries evacuees to naval base HMAS Cerberus outside Melbourne (RAN)

Published Jan 10, 2020 2:01 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Royal Australian Navy amphib HMAS Choules has finished her second evacuation voyage from Mallacoota, Victoria, carrying an additional 280 people to safety. The evacuees included 66 Country Fire Authority (CFA) firefighters.

The first evacuation handled all the people who initially wanted to leave the town, but a number of people stayed behind to offer assistance, according to CPO Heath Jones, the Choules' personnel officer. “Many sent other family members on the first opportunity, and over the coming days it became clear the immediate crisis was over, but evacuation by road would not be possible for some time. When we offered the second opportunity on our return, most visitors and some residents took it up," CPO Jones said in a statement.

The CFA contingent included firefighter Samantha Rothman, who worked as part of the team in the forward command vehicle of CFA Strike Team 0204 Deployment 3. “We have been deployed to the East Gippsland region for the past few days, in the third deployment to Mallacoota, so we had already had two previous crews in there for the fire fight,” she said. “At the time that we arrived there was a lot of difficulty getting in and out  . . . The added bonus has been the Chinook or Spartan ride into Mallacoota, and the ride home [on] Choules. Choules has been really awesome, the beds are comfortable, the food is amazing, and everyone you meet has a smile on their face and goes out of their way to help you.”

Choules’ CO, Commander Scott Houlihan, said that this deployment reflects well on the Australian Navy’s amphibious warfare capabilities. “This is the most significant evacuation of civilians I have experienced in almost 30 years in the Navy . . . The ability to help a mate out is its own reward, but the response from our evacuees and the authorities in Mallacoota and beyond has been overwhelming," Commander Houlihan said in a statement.

As of Saturday morning local time, HMAS Choules was under way and headed north along the coast of New South Wales; the larger amphib HMAS Adelaide was anchored off Eden.

Fire conditions remained hazardous overnight Friday, with strong and erratic winds across large parts of eastern Victoria and New South Wales' South Coast. As of Saturday, a merged "megafire" of 1.5 million acres straddled the border between the two states, the largest contiguous burned area so far and more than three times as large as the largest fire ever recorded in California. About 130 other fires are also under way in the region in various stages of containment.