Devastating moment town had been waiting for

A defining moment of Australia’s devastating bushfire season last summer was the image of thousands of residents, campers and tourists alike huddled by the water in Mallacoota as the sky turned red and a devastating blaze closed in on the Gippsland town.

On the morning of New Year’s Eve, 2019, an out-of-control fire surrounded the town, forcing emergency services to order roughly 4000 people to head for the foreshore, where they remained for hours.

For Mallacoota resident, photographer and fundraiser Martin Ascher, the moment made him “realise how insignificant you are”, he said in an interview for a new video series supporting bushfire-affected communities, Open for Business.

“No matter what you do at that time, when the fire’s looming, you realise there’s not an awful lot you can do. It’s a massive beast with no conscience,” he said.

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‘Most people in Mallacoota could see by the intensity of it that it was going to be the fire we’d all been expecting.’ Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied

Thousands of people watched in disbelief as the sky turned red. Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied

Mallacoota and District Business and Tourism Association President Grant Cockburn said it was clear from early on that the town wasn’t going to make it through unscathed.

“Leading up to the fires coming, when it first started most people in Mallacoota could see by the intensity of it that it was going to be the fire we’d all been expecting,” he said.

“When it was imminent the fire was going to get here, the police tried to get as many tourists as possible out of town. Those that stayed, I don’t think thought it was going to be quite as big as it was.”

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Residents, tourists and campers were ordered by emergency services to head to the foreshore, where they huddled for hours. Picture: InstagramSource:Supplied

‘We didn’t know how safe they were going to be and it was really frightening,’ local Mariska Ascher said. Picture: Kammeron CranSource:Supplied

Mr Ascher’s wife, Mariska, said the situation – evacuating 4000 tourists, some who had pets, others who had babies and others who were elderly and in pushers – “was just devastating, really”.

“We didn’t know how safe they were going to be and it was really frightening,” she recalled.

The emergency services, Mr Cockburn said, “did a fantastic job by making sure everybody was safe and the result of that was that no one lost their life”.

“Bushfires pretty much decimated a lot of the infrastructure in town as far as boardwalks, hundred-year-old houses that were lost,” he added.

Thankfully, the State Government sent money to the shire to help repair what was lost, and together, he said, the town has been able to “‘build back better’ … it’s absolutely fantastic”.

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The region has spent the last year rebuilding what was lost. Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied

Mallacoota and District Business and Tourism Association President Grant Cockburn. Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied

One of Gippsland’s great escapes – surrounded by the wilderness of the Croajingolong National Park and set on the picturesque Mallacoota Inlet – Mallacoota Cruises’ Dale Windward said the area was well on its way to recovery.

“Waking up here before the fires, it was just a cacophony of birds and noises and wildlife,” he said.

“And after the fires it just went deathly silent. Wildlife was probably the biggest impact, I think, on a lot of people in Mallacoota. You know after all the bushfires [things] have come back so well – it was the best wildflower season I’ve ever seen here and I’ve been here my whole life.

“The bushes are growing back, the birds are coming back, the water’s still here and it’s a great place.”

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Mallacoota is the perfect stop along the Melbourne to Sydney coastal drive route. Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied

The area is renowned for its wildlife, the perfect place to ‘get out into nature and make the most of it’. Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied

For those travelling along the Melbourne to Sydney coastal drive, the town is a fabulous place to stop along the route, explore the beaches, pitch a tent or use as a base for exploring the national parks and local hiking trails.

As a commercial fishing town, it’s also a prime spot for anglers, recreational fishers, boating enthusiasts and abalone divers.

Local cafe Lucy’s. Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied

“It’s pristine. It’s just a really beautiful place to visit,” Mr Windward said.

“We’ve got bicycle areas, we’ve got national parks, we’ve got wilderness areas, we’ve got everything you need to get out and about. And if you get bored in Mallacoota, there’s something wrong with you. Mallacoota’s about getting out into nature and making the most of it.”

‘If you get bored in Mallacoota, there’s something wrong with you.’ Picture: Mallacoota Open for Business. Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied

Martin Ascher and wife Mariska shoot a calendar of the area each year. Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied

The Aschers are well accustomed to shooting the town’s beauty, having produced a calendar for the last seven years featuring images of the area “that we think everybody likes” taken by Mr Ascher.

“Through the fires, we’ve actually raised $400,000 with the sales of our books, the calendars and our bags and we’ve donated that,” Ms Ascher said.

“And we’ve donated it to the wildlife, ambulance, fire brigade, medical clinic and SES … So basically, that’s what we do, that’s all we care about – our community and to raise money.”

The region is ‘just a beautiful place’. Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied

They agree that the region is “just a beautiful place”.

“It’s a really, really nice place to live and the people here are magnificent,” Mr Ascher said, while Ms Ascher said she thinks it’s “the most beautiful place in Australia”.

‘It’s got everything you could possibly want.’ Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied

The area is already welcoming ‘a lot of new tourists’. Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied

“It’s just lovely, the atmosphere. It’s got everything you could possibly want,” she said.

“We’ve found a lot of new tourists here over this last month-and-a-half and that’s been absolutely fantastic. They want to see Mallacoota, they want to support Mallacoota. And they’ve seen how absolutely beautiful and how caring our community is.”

For the next 14 weeks, in partnership with Tourism Australia and the National Bushfire Recovery Agency will showcase bushfire impacted regions that need our support. For the full video series, check out Open for Business

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