Hannah McArdle was in familiar surroundings.
Mallacoota, a small town in the East Gippsland region of Victoria swells in the last week of December. Thousands of holiday makers descend on the community looking to see in the new year by the water. Bustling caravan parks, fishing boats and kids playing on the beach are all familiar sights as the year draws to a close.
For many years a beach mission team has operated in Mallacoota running children’s holiday activities. Hannah had volunteered on the mission team for the previous three summers. This summer Hannah was stepping into a leadership role as one of three team directors. While she may have had slight nerves at the prospect of having responsibility for 30 volunteers, nothing could have prepared her for the baptism of fire she was about to experience.
The first signs of trouble came on December 30th. The team were running the 2nd day of children’s activities. “It was really weird weather,” Hannah says as she remembers a hot, humid and smoky day. A lightning strike 50 kilometers away had created a bushfire which was now burning out of control. The program was called off early that due to the intense humidity.
As the fire continued to march toward the town, team members were told to put long clothing on and evacuate to the beach. Team members were shaken and scared; everyone who had a phone was calling their parents; crying, praying and passing on the little information they knew.
Waiting for the firestorm
In the middle of the afternoon thousands of holiday makers and locals found themselves evacuated to the beach. Hannah recalls that no one really knew what was going on; communication wasn’t clear. As the hours dragged on and with the fire still some distance away the team were given permission to return to a Church to get some sleep.
The fire was expected to descend upon the community in the early hours of the morning. It wasn’t easy to sleep with fire set to bear down on the community. Hannah managed to sleep for 3 or 4 hours before a paramedic arrived to provide eye drops and masks to team members. As Hannah peered out the window, she saw the morning sky turn from orange to blood red and finally to black.
Back to the beach
It was now 9am on the last day of the year; it was 50 degrees outside and the water supply had become undrinkable due to ash contamination. With limited fire trucks available to defend the town the team were told to evacuate to the beach. Hannah and her team wrapped wet tea-towels over their heads to assist with breathing as they battled thick smoke on their way back to the beach.
The fire was now engulfing houses in nearby streets. More than 100 homes in Mallacoota would ultimately be destroyed. Hannah estimates the fire was now just 2-3 kilometers away and many were fearing the worst.
A last-minute wind change miraculously spared township from total destruction. Many news reports described the change as the ‘wind of God’. Upon hearing the news the entire beach erupted with cheers of relief. Hannah had endured almost 24 hours in the line of fire and with no way out of Mallacoota; she and her friends would have to wait several days to be evacuated out the community.
No way home
While the team awaited news of evacuation arrangements the team showed great selflessness. The team decided while they were waiting, they would keep serving the community; the very reason they came to Mallacoota. The team ran craft activities and games for children everyday whilst they remained in Mallacoota.
Navy to the rescue
The Government deployed a Navy Ship; HMAS Choules to rescue nearly 1000 people from Mallacoota; including Hannah and the mission team. Hannah and her friends left behind 9 cars and 2 trailers and wouldn’t be able to collect them for several weeks. Hannah was able to roam widely throughout the Navy ship and even managed a solid night’s sleep on an office floor. After a 27-hour trip the HMAS Choules arrived safely in Western Port Bay.
Returning to Mallacoota
It was a confronting trip back to Mallacoota for Hannah to collect her vehicle. For over two hundred kilometers of her journey she saw nothing but the sight of black burnt bush. On December 30th amid the evacuation call Hannah made a snap decision to move her car. Had it not been for that decision she wouldn’t have a car; fire went through the very spot her car had previously been parked.
Trusting in the Lord
It hasn’t been easy for Hannah to return to life as normal; the bushfire has impacted her life in a big way. Hannah never doubted that God had a plan and believes these experiences have strengthened her trust in God. Hannah was interviewed on the ABC and shared about how her team trusted in God even in the darkest of moments. Despite her ordeal, Hannah says she wouldn’t trade it for the world.
“God is always using things for good even when we can’t see it.”
Hannah is looking forward to going back to Mallacoota at the end of the year to continue serving the community. She’s looking forward to leading through a full program this time.
Travis Barnes lives in central Victoria with his wife and two daughters. He is a contributor for Christian Today and a sportswriter.