Mallacoota's displaced: The journey to safety is not a simple one

Weariness and worry in the faces of Mallacoota's displaced

A mother holds her young daughter amid the crowd of stranded tourists and locals at Mallacoota, her face a picture of weariness and worry.

She is agonising over whether to put her child on the HMAS Choules, which took nearly 1000 people off the beaches of Mallacoota on Friday.

As the heat of fire burns down and the smoke clears to reveal the damage to towns and villages along the east coast, the picture emerging is one of mass displacement.

The story in recent days has been told in the tired faces of those who have been sleeping in evacuation centres, town halls, on couches and in tents, without power, without phones, far from the comforts of home and normality.

Photojournalist Rachel Mounsey is one of around 400 people remaining in her fire-ravaged hometown, which has become an enduring symbol of a fire season like none we've seen before.

She has stayed, and continues to document the extraordinary scenes of desperation as they play out in this pretty holiday town.

As tourists registered in the hope of getting their families aboard the Choules, for locals, the evacuation would often mean parents were separated from their children.

Others were taken away by smaller boats and private tenders to nearby towns. The elderly and sick were taken out by choppers ahead of the arrival of the Choules, which could fit some, but not all of the stranded.

Rachel put her own daughter on the Naval ship, while she stayed to look after her pets and her home.

"People had to make a choice to either stay or go. It's a really serious situation here with the air quality. The smoke, burning plastics and asbestos... we've all had masks on since it started," she said.

"I put my daughter on the boat. She wanted to get out. She made her own choice."

Her daughter is now safe with family in Melbourne.

After the initial firestorm, residents had been told that Saturday's conditions would bring back danger in the form of ember attack. The prospect of another emergency was too much - and many took the opportunity to leave however they could.

Others stayed, like 82-year-old camper John Angland who has been coming to Mallacoota for 40 years, and told Rachel he was feeling safe and wasn't worried.

As Saturday wore on, it was the text book calm before the storm. Down at Bottom Lake the sky turned rose gold, as children from a visiting family paddled. Rachel said her photograph shows a moment that is peaceful and playful after all the stress. She noticed the light ash that began to fall gently around the children. But the calm scene was not to last.

Friendly and matter-of-fact, CFA volunteers soon began to tell people it was time to go inside and shelter. The southerly was coming. The sky was turning an angry red and getting darker by the second.

Families returned to the evacuation centre ahead of the change. Many carried with them their babies and small children under the age of five who were not allowed on the Choules.

By Sunday, with cooler temperatures and, to everyone's amazement, rain falling, many of the remaining people were airlifted out, waiting patiently at the town's airport.

The town would soon be almost empty, save for some hardy locals. Rachel Mounsey captured the moment a young girl peered through the glass, watching the aircraft, probably wondering when it would be her turn to leave. There are raindrops on the glass.

It's hard not to think about how the children of this event will look back and remember it, and how the experiences of the last fortnight may have changed them.