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Real Life

Real life: The Mallacoota bushfires where "the sky turned black"

As the town burned, thousands of Mallacoota residents fled to the beach. Here, locals describe the apocalyptic scenes, but the true extent of the damage remains unknown…

By As told to Take 5
There's not a single person who hasn't had their heart broken by the horrific bushfires that have swept our nation.
Yet, remarkably, from the ashes – with much of Oz still on the frontline – the spirit of Aussies has shone through stronger than ever as people from every walk of life band together.
During this time of pain and devastation, kindness is keeping hope alive to help Australia heal from fires that would have brought many other nations to their knees. The road to rebuild will be long, but as
a nation we will – brick by brick, fence by fence.
This week across Bauer Media titles, we are continuing our campaign to help our neighbours in their time of need. Each week, in Take 5 and at www.rebuildourtowns.com.au, we will shine a spotlight on one of the affected towns, informing our readers on ways to help, from the best fundraisers, to products you can buy to support small businesses.
Maybe the farmers need fencing supplies or those who run the community hall need a hand to get back up and running, so locals can gather and support one another.
It could even mean planning a getaway to the region when the time is right, to bolster the local tourism industry.
Helping doesn't have to cost a fortune and many hands do make a difference to those doing it tough. Our thoughts go out to every person, but actions speak louder than words, so join us to make a lasting difference.
This week, we focus on the town of Mallacoota in Vic…

Michelle Roberts, 50, Mallacoota shares her tragic true life story;

Squinting through the smoke, I looked up in disbelief. Instead of the beautiful blue sky we were used to in our picturesque coastal town of Mallacoota, it was blood red, littered with flecks of burning embers.
For 48 hours, my daughter Maisy, 18, and I had been hosing down our home to fight against incoming ember attacks from a nearby bushfire.
We'd barely slept and were utterly exhausted.
How much longer can we keep this up? I thought.
As New Year's Eve approached, the temperature was set to surge to 37 degrees and the wind would be ferocious, changing direction at any moment.
Looking at our emergency app, we learnt that fires had burnt through bushland nearby and were heading towards us, forcing residents to decide whether to stay and fight, or flee to safety.
With my home and livelihood – a small business called Croajingolong Cafe – on the line, I knew I had to fight.
"I won't blame you if you want to leave," I told Maisy.
"I'm staying put with you, Mum," she said bravely.
She and I had been running between our house and the cafe, hosing them down throughout the night.
As the sun rose, casting a haunting red glare over the town, we braced ourselves for another gruelling day.
But at 7am, the sky turned black, as if it was midnight.
"What's going on?" Maisy asked nervously.
"No idea…" I replied.
Day turned to fiery night - it was unbelievable. (Photo credit Getty - Darrian Traynor)
Silence filled the air. Our house was perched on a hill and surrounded by thick bushland. We'd be no match against the fire surging towards us.
Soon, Country Fire Authority (CFA) volunteers were urging us to evacuate.
We loved our home, but our lives were irreplaceable.
"Get the cat," I instructed Maisy. "It's time to go."
My cafe was made of concrete and sat 100 metres from the lake. If the fire came into town, we could sprint into the water if we needed to.
Silently, I said goodbye to our home. I'd first moved to Mallacoota from New Zealand 20 years ago, and the house quickly became the birthplace of many beautiful memories.
It was where I'd raised my eldest son Tom, 20, who was in Melbourne, and Maisy. I couldn't believe it could all go up in flames.
We fled to the cafe, where an orange glow appeared on the horizon.
It sounded like a wall of jet engines was tearing towards us. I watched in horror as fire engulfed the hill our home sat on.
There it goes, I thought. My emotions were all over the place – shock, sadness, adrenaline... but also relief that we were still alive.
We went down to the wharf to find out what was going on, expecting hundreds of terrified tourists, but the atmosphere was eerily calm.
Everyone was focused on supporting each other.
As we returned to the cafe, CFA sirens suddenly rang out, signalling for the campers to run to the wharf for protection.
Me and Maisy. (Image: Supplied)
The flames were about to inundate the entire town!
We stayed put, and after an hour of anxiety, the wind blew the fire away from town, sparing thousands of lives.
That night, Maisy and I crashed on the cafe floor. Next morning, we woke, still reeling from the horror. We'd forgot it had been New Year's Eve.
My phone had many text messages wishing us well, but there was one from a mate who was a CFA volunteer.
Your house is safe, it read. Your street was spared from the flames.
I couldn't believe it. I'd heard several reports that the reserve behind my house was on fire.
For a moment, it felt like I'd won the lotto, but soon guilt set in. Why were we so lucky when many had lost everything?
"What are we gonna do?" asked Maisy.
I decided there was a way to use our luck to help the community.
"Business as usual," I replied, pulling chairs off tables at the cafe. "But everything's free!"
Croajingolong Cafe staff Bryce and Vuong with Maisy. (Image: Supplied)
We posted on Facebook, inviting tourists and locals in for a cuppa and a chat. Many people were still in shock.
When my employees, Vuong, Bryce, Natasha and Chris, saw the post, they offered to help out.
Visitors could also charge their phones, as most of the town's power was out.
"You're a lifesaver, Michelle," one woman told me as she plugged in her iPhone. "My family has been worried sick."
Another man was just happy to have a place to gather his thoughts after losing his home.
"My family and I have nowhere else to go," he said softly, staring into his latte.
As Mallacoota became 
the subject of worldwide headlines, news of our cafe spread. Aussies were desperate to help in any way they could.
Coffee roasters sent beans from Melbourne via helicopter, and others donated funds so we could keep feeding locals.
Mallacoota Wildlife Shelter. (Photo credit: Mallacoota Wildlife Shelter Facebook)
Despite the devastation the fire brought to our town, it's been incredible to watch us all unite. Everyone's doing their bit, and the CFA volunteers have worked tirelessly to keep us safe.
Doctors from Melbourne flew in to help the injured.
And Sue Johns, the owner of the Mallacoota Wildlife Shelter, has been caring for displaced or burnt koalas with the help of vet volunteers.
Mallacoota is an amazing town full of Aussie spirit and sometimes, it takes something as awful as this to remind us.
But even in the darkest of times, our cafe is always open for a hot cuppa and a good yarn.
That's how we'll heal and get back on our feet.
Michelle's payment will be put back into her community to help those affected by the fire.

How to donate

To help get the town back up and running, send funds to:
Mallacoota Wildlife Shelter Fire Relief Fund:
To donate directly, visit: www.gofundme.com/f/mallacoota-wildlife-shelter-fire-relief-fund
Mallacoota Bushfire Relief – Official Fundraiser by Mallacoota Lions Club:
To donate directly, visit: www.gofundme.com/f/mallacoota-bushfire
Mallacoota Fires Support Fund:
To donate directly, visit: www.gofundme.com/f/mallacoota-fires-support-fund
RECOVERY:
Facilitated by the Mallacoota Sub-branch of the Returned & Services League of Australia, this is a community resource for disaster preparedness, education, and recovery.
To donate directly, visit: mallacootaau.recovers.org/?fbclid=IwAR1Bh
The Gippsland Emergency Relief Fund (GERF) has launched an appeal for financial donations to provide fire-affected locals with immediate support.
To donate directly, visit: www.gerf.org.au/gerf-10000-donation-australian-paper-2
It's my shout:
A Lakes Entrance local has set up an awesome new website – itsmyshout.com.au – to try to get money back into the town. You can buy from local businesses, book rooms in hotels and B'n'Bs for those in need, and even shout someone a coffee or a beer at the local pub!
Donate here: www.itsmyshout.com.au

Lend a hand

If you've got more time than money, there are still things you can do to help!
Please only donate goods if charities have specifically requested items. Charities are struggling to sort through donated goods, which have diverted their resources away from the fire effort.
Blood: The Red Cross's blood donation service, Lifeblood, says they're going to need more donations – especially as the bushfire crisis worsens. You can find out where to give blood, and if you're eligible to donate, here: https://www.donateblood.com.au/
Food: Donate to Food Banks Australia, providing meals and assistance to affected people.⁣
Pledge: You can also sign your name to a petition calling for firefighters to have better protective gear. The change.org petition was started by the Firefighter Cancer Coalition.
Room: Airbnb program Findabed is connecting people who can accommodate those who've been displaced. Sign up to: www.findabed.info
Call: Call your local MP and @scottmorrisonmp, and demand action on climate change.

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