AUSTRALIA — As refugees from devastating bushfires crowded into a cinema in the Australian town of Mallacoota, “Frozen” and “Happy Feet” were playing to keep the kids calm.
Ash was falling from the building’s air vents, covering around 500 people inside — they were exhausted and overheated from fleeing the approaching fire.
“We got here and it felt like a death trap to be honest,” said Canadian Meaghan Wegg, 34, who sought refuge in the small theater along with her Australian-born husband Tim Buckley, 37, and her two children Georgia, 3, and Jackson, 5 on New Year’s Eve.
Wegg is one of the 4,000 people who fled to beaches as bushfires raged in Mallacoota, a family camping spot on the eastern edge of the state of Victoria.
After six days sheltering in the cinema, Wegg and her family got evacuated to safety on January 5. But it will take a while for them to recover from the shock of their experience, she told CNN.
No time to flee
The family flew to Australia on December 27 from Montreal, Canada, to visit some relatives and friends at the Mallacoota Campground, a popular tourist destination.
“On December 31, we woke up and it was already 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) which is a danger watch and fire ban for campers, so we decided to take the kids to the beach to get some water play,” Wegg said. “We had a blast and stayed longer than we usually would have to keep cool in the water, took our time to get back in the air conditioning and as soon as we got there we had a 10-minute ‘get out ASAP’ call and the sirens were going off.”
The family packed quickly and drove to another beach. They set up a tent and mattress on the sand, and waited.
At 1 a.m., the sky was bright and orange, with a glare from the fire that meant it was coming their way, Wegg said.
“It kept us up as it was also really cold which was odd from the hot day we had. The fire was heading in the direction of the parking lot. We all left our cars because the fire was coming to the campground,” she said.
The wind started picking up around 4 a.m., and it became a sandstorm on the beach, Wegg said. “We quickly tried to pack things up but had to leave lots … ended up grabbing the kids and … running through water to get to another shelter point, a campsite,” she said.
Inside the cinema
Trucks were taking people to another shelter — the cinema.
“After the … wind passed we had a few more hours of waiting before they asked us to go outside with a mask to cool down as we were overheating,” Wegg said.
Wegg’s husband left to help the firefighters take down the fires threatening the campsite near their tent. “They ran out of water and he was filling up buckets from the campsite taps and running them into the bush with his friends, she said.
Eventually, the family moved the tent and belongings close to the cinema, which then became the main shelter for about 100-200 people.
“That night we counted our blessings and it happened to be New Year’s Day,” Wegg said.
For six days, the family slept on a crash mat, spending their time trying to keep the kids occupied. “We managed to get our iPad plugged in and the kids had some games and shows to play,” she said.
“I hand-washed all of our clothes and hung to dry (but) couldn’t get rid of the fire smell,” Wegg added.
“January 3 was my daughter Georgia’s third birthday. We made it as fun as we could, we gathered up 12 kids from friends and family and played games,” she said.
Waiting to be evacuated
Local authorities drafted evacuation lists for the refugees.
“We had to line up to get our name on a list, then they took kids under 5 and families to be in air-evacuated lines — and the rest on the boat. Helicopters kept trying to land but it was too smoky.”
The family drove through bush fires to get to the airport and waited. A helicopter circled for 40 minutes, but failed to land and went back to refuel before trying — and failing — again, Wegg said.
Meanwhile, the fire trucks that were there received an urgent call to go battle more fires. Wegg and her family found themselves lying on the floor of the tiny airport with no power, waiting in the dark.
“By 11 p.m. they delivered sad news. Took us back in the shuttle to get to the shelter. We slept on the floor at the cinema but the Red Cross ladies were super-supportive and helpful,” she said.
After two more failed attempts, a Chinook helicopter finally managed to land and the family to safety.
“We are all safe and rested. A bit in shock, but good,” she said.