Reporting for Duty
We’ve all heard the numbers on the news: 26 million acres of Australian land incinerated, an estimated one billion animals killed and more than 25 people dead with figures rising by the day. While the numbers from Australia’s worst bushfire season in decades are shocking enough to capture the media’s attention for weeks on end, they do not truly depict the portrait of civilians terrorized by fires with no end-date in sight.
Here is the scene that numbers on a page fail to illustrate: fires so engulfing that the only escape in sight is the ocean. Civilians trying to decide between drowning and burning, pushed so close to the coastline that their last remaining option may be to jump into the water. This is not a viable exit plan; this is a last resort when there is no other way out. This is the reality of the Australian bushfires as experienced by ordinary people whose lives have been upended.
In Mallacoota on New Year’s Eve, 4,000 people fled to the beach as an alleged 60-foot-high wall of fire rushed towards them at approximately 56 mph. Local David Jeffrey recalls in a video for BBC that “There’s a rock wall that they’ve built to keep back the sea, and that is where we were going to jump into the water if the radiant heat had hit.”
It’s daytime, but the sky is pitch black as the fire roars closer and closer to the masses huddled by the shore, destroying homes and businesses in its path. Nothing can detract from this devastation, but if there is silver lining that has shone through the ash and ruin, it is the strength of the boating community, which promptly came to the rescue.
The Mallacoota evacuees were saved in a formal rescue operation deployed by the Royal Australian Navy, which sent two vessels to the scene: the MV Sycamore and the HMAS Choules. The two vessels transported approximately one thousand residents and their pets 16 hours down the coast to Western Port. This rescue mission was an early example of what developed into a larger operation in its wake: Operation Bushfire Assist, which went into effect on January 4. The disaster relief program has deployed land, air and marine vessels to assist civilians, including the two Royal Navy vessels that came to the rescue in Mallacoota and one additional, the HMAS Adelaide.
But while the mass relocation of people and the humanitarian response from the government is impressive in its own right, perhaps the most underappreciated heroes are the recreational boaters who have saved lives by loading evacuees onto their personal vessels.
About 200 miles north of Mallacoota at Conjola Park, Brett Cripps lost his vacation home to a fire, also on New Year’s Eve, that seemingly emerged from nowhere and devastated the region in only minutes. Fortunately for many that day, his loss only heightened his instincts, and he and his parents boarded his small boat in Conjola Lake. It was a decision that saved a family of 11 tourists and their dog, as well as one additional man.
The family had been camping in RVs and did not see the rapidly approaching fire heading towards them from over a hill. Cripps did notice, however, and he summoned the family to his boat, where they all watched the fire devour their campers minutes later.
Cripps fit 15 people and one dog onto a boat designed for six, but to him there was nothing particularly special about the rescue. “There were a lot of local residents with boats and jet skis helping people out,” he recalls in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald. “I just happened to be in the spot.”
Shoalhaven mayor Amanda Findley was a bit more impressed by the rescue, however. “Brett had just watched his own house burn to the ground, and he still had the presence of mind to assist other people with his boat,” she shared with the Herald. “In the community’s eyes, he’s just one of many heroes that spent that horror day helping others.”
The boating community banded together in Conjola that day, continuing a long-standing tradition of boaters coming to the rescue when disaster strikes. When we consider how boaters have responded to past disasters, their response in Australia is far from surprising.
The precedent can be traced all the way back to 1940, when hundreds of civilian vessels, ranging from fishing boats, pleasure yachts, lifeboats and ferries, assisted naval vessels in evacuating Allied troops from Dunkirk during World War II. Thanks to the collective effort, the evacuation is now remembered as the Miracle at Dunkirk, as approximately 338,000 troops were saved.
In our more recent memory, recreational vessels were on the scene at such disasters as 9/11 and Hurricanes Dorian, Irma and Maria. During 9/11, as buildings crumbled before their eyes, boat owners stepped up to the plate to assist the Coast Guard in the largest marine evacuation in history, during which 500,000 Americans were shuttled away from the city. Hundreds of vessels participated in the assist, and it was completed in just nine hours.
During the Category 5 hurricanes, boaters assisted not only in evacuating survivors, but in delivering food and supplies to those left stranded among the ruin. Such assistance is not for the faint-hearted; in many cases, boaters placed their own lives at risk while travelling through unsteady seas into unstable areas, many of them recreational boaters acting ahead of government response, which was especially the case after Dorian.
There is currently no end in sight for Australia, which is only halfway through its summer season and could still experience even higher temperatures. Operation Bushfire Assist will be in effect until the proper authorities deem it no longer necessary, and if history has taught us anything, it’s that civilian relief efforts will continue to be assisted by recreational boaters, who have always reliably reported for duty whenever and wherever disaster strikes.