The Current

Fires in Australia turn night sky 'blood red' as tourists seek refuge on beach

Retired police officer Mark Tregellas says the latest bushfires have devastated his community in Mallacoota, Australia, where thousands took refuge on beaches as the fires raged.

Mark Tregellas fled the fires with his family in Mallacoota, Australia

The sky glows red as bushfires continue to rage in Mallacoota on Tuesday in this photo obtained from social media. (Jonty Smith from Melbourne/via Reuters)

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An Australian man who took refuge on a beach with thousands of tourists has spoken of huddling on the pitch-black shore as thick black smoke blotted out the night sky.

"One of our firefighters … was riding on the top of his fire truck. He raised his arm up above his head, using his torch to see and his hand disappeared into the black," said Mark Tregellas, a retired police officer who lives in Mallacoota, an eastern Australian town with a population of roughly 1,000.

"He said it was like dipping his hand into a bucket of ink, except it was above his head."

As the fires grew closer, Tregellas said that darkness — which he called "the black" — turned "blood red." 

Crews monitor fires and begin back burns between the towns of Orbost and Lakes Entrance in East Gippsland, Victoria. (Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

Authorities are calling this fire season the worst on record. About five million hectares of land have burned, at least 17 people have been killed and more than 1,400 homes have been destroyed.

As the flames approached, Tregallas and his family fled their home, which was saved from the flames by neighbours who stayed behind.

They went to a nearby beach, where between 4,000 and 5,000 tourists, trapped by the flames, also sought refuge. 

He told The Current's Laura Lynch about their lucky escape

What went through your mind as you fled to the beach with your family? 

We never really felt like our actual lives were in danger because we were right next to the water. Even if we felt that the firestorm would come through and take out the cars. 

There were about 300 to 400 vehicles that were packed like sardines into an area that was devoid of trees. We thought that if one car caught fire and they were unable to put it out, and other cars caught fire, we would at least all be able to wade out into the water and survive. 

Mark Tregellas said vehicles packed tightly near the beach could have caught fire, pushing people out in to the water to escape the flames. (Submitted by Mark Tregellas)

People, amazingly, were actually not panicking. I did see one or two people who were having a bit of a moment with the stress of it all. But the majority of people were actually very quiet. They were revved up, most people were well-equipped with woollen clothing, smoke masks, torches and good footwear. We didn't have sort of any idiots running around in shorts and T-shirts.

And everybody was talking to one another. I was walking around. I was being offered food, drinks. And it was just sort of like an inevitability that was going to happen. 

What happened eventually was that 'the black' turned into a glow of red. 

I saw that, that was eerie. That just looked so eerie, that blood-red sky. 

It was a blood-red sky and eventually, it covered the entire sky. Then the wind came and then entire gum leaves — three, four-inches long — were just dropping out of the sky around us. It eventually then turned into sleet of ash. Literally like a sleet rain, except it was ash, which was coating everything. And then embers started to come. The winds picked up, at times they were in excess of 60 kilometres an hour. The embers flew out into the lower lake, where there were islands and the tea tree on there caught fire and started a blaze.

Watch video taken as people take refuge on Rosedale Beach, 276 km north of Mallacoota

View from the beach

CBC News

1 year ago
0:34
A woman captured the burning vegetation near Rosedale beach on her phone while she and her family sheltered from the devastating fires. 0:34

And it got to a point where everybody was getting ready to evacuate. 

And at that last minute, there was a wind change and the fire actually took off up north.

There's now suggestions that that those temperatures are going back up and you people there are being told to get out again. What are you going to do?

Yes, well, I'm going to stay here.

When everyone else is leaving? Why do you want to stay?

Well, we can't get out. The roads are blocked. The roads are officially going to be blocked for a minimum of two weeks. 

It's a case of, well, we live here. It's our home. We'd like to try and if the fire does come back, to stay and defend it.

Australian firemen take cover in truck surrounded by flames

CBC News

1 year ago
1:00
The fire department in New South Wales, Australia, posted this video to social media showing one of its trucks surrounded by flames. 1:00

What about your wife and daughters, though, even if you want to stay? What are they saying to you? What are you saying to them? 

Well, we discussed it as a family. We asked the girls what they wanted to do. And all three of them said that they wanted to stay and help. The area has just been devastated to the point that is very, very hard to describe. My youngest daughter, who's 13, came back yesterday in tears because she found two koalas that had been burnt to death in the fire and were curled up. Even feeling that emotion and that sadness, she's still adamant that she wants to stay and help and fight fires.


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Ben Jamieson. 

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