Mallacoota fires: Rachel Mounsey photos tell story of her town's bushfire disaster

The blackened hills hoist. The bare bones of a caravan picked clean by flames. The melted bumper bar of a truck.

What appear to be garden ornaments, misshapen by furious heat, on what used to be someone's front porch.

Mallacoota, Victoria. New Year's Day 2020. Picture: Rachel Mounsey

Mallacoota, Victoria. New Year's Day 2020. Picture: Rachel Mounsey

These are the charred remnants of life after the firestorm in Mallacoota captured on New Year's Day by photojournalist Rachel Mounsey in the wake of Tuesday's bushfire emergency in Victoria's East Gippsland.

Mallacoota, Victoria. New Year's Day 2020. Picture: Rachel Mounsey

Mallacoota, Victoria. New Year's Day 2020. Picture: Rachel Mounsey

As many as a dozen homes are feared to have been lost in Mallacoota, where some residents retreated to the beach and even took to boats as the night sky glowed a burning red.

Mallacoota, Victoria. New Year's Day 2020. Picture: Rachel Mounsey

Mallacoota, Victoria. New Year's Day 2020. Picture: Rachel Mounsey

Rachel, on Christmas holidays at home this week from her job as the busy reporter at Australian Community Media's local newspaper The Magnet in nearby Eden, lives in Mallacoota with her family and two dogs.

Her house in the remote coastal town was spared in the devastation of early New Year's Eve. Some of her neighbours were not so lucky.

Tourists at Mallacoota before the fire hit. Picture: Rachel Mounsey

Tourists at Mallacoota before the fire hit. Picture: Rachel Mounsey

"Our shed is gone and my husband lost his tools, but in my street, Terra Nova Drive, people have lost their homes, they have lost everything," Rachel said after finally resting late on Wednesday.

"One of my son's best friends' family lost their house and when he told me there were tears in his eyes."

Residents and visitors take shelter at Mallacoota. Picture: Rachel Mounsey

Residents and visitors take shelter at Mallacoota. Picture: Rachel Mounsey

More than 70 structures have been destroyed by the East Gippsland fires, which have burned through 676,600 hectares of land.

Choking smoke greeting residents when they were allowed to leave the safety of the hall in Mallacoota. Picture: Rachel Mounsey

Choking smoke greeting residents when they were allowed to leave the safety of the hall in Mallacoota. Picture: Rachel Mounsey

The total area burnt has exceeded that of Victoria's Black Saturday bushfires of February 2009.

The HMAS Choules is expected to arrive on Thursday at Mallacoota to deliver water, food and medical supplies, and potentially evacuate some of the estimated 4000 people isolated there since Monday.

Mallacoota fire emergency. New Year's Eve 2019. Picture: Rachel Mounsey

Mallacoota fire emergency. New Year's Eve 2019. Picture: Rachel Mounsey

While the fire danger is no longer at emergency level, the reprieve will likely be short-lived with temperatures increasing again on Friday and Mallacoota facing 43 degrees on Saturday and windy conditions.

Charred bikes ridden to the safety of the beach. Mallacoota, Victoria. New Year's Day 2020. Picture: Rachel Mounsey

Charred bikes ridden to the safety of the beach. Mallacoota, Victoria. New Year's Day 2020. Picture: Rachel Mounsey

Through her camera lens, Rachel documented the hours before, and the aftermath of, the disaster that has struck her community: the seeming obliviousness of holidaymakers canoodling under approaching plumes of smoke; the red skies at midnight as residents and tourists huddled together in a hall; the choking orange air that swamped them when they finally were allowed out on New Year's Eve; and the scenes of devastation that greeted home-owners when permitted to return to what's left of their neighbourhoods on the first day of 2020.

Mallacoota, Victoria. New Year's Day 2020. Picture: Rachel Mounsey

Mallacoota, Victoria. New Year's Day 2020. Picture: Rachel Mounsey

"My husband and son stayed to help protect the homes in our street, while I took my daughter and our dogs to the hall," Rachel said.

The bushfire emergency text alert received on Monday afternoon warned people to "shelter now" and while most went to the hall, some stayed on the beach, while others took to the water in their boats and even kayaks.

Mallacoota, Victoria. New Year's Day 2020. Picture: Rachel Mounsey

Mallacoota, Victoria. New Year's Day 2020. Picture: Rachel Mounsey

One of Rachel's friends hid under a blanket with her dog on the wharf.

"Mallacoota is a small town but with the tourists around it just seemed so full, and I worried about how all these people would be able to find shelter or get out," she said.

Mallacoota, Victoria. New Year's Day 2020. Picture: Rachel Mounsey

Mallacoota, Victoria. New Year's Day 2020. Picture: Rachel Mounsey

As she walked the streets on New Year's Day, Rachel was heartbroken by the full impact of the fire: homes built by hand from mudbrick gutted; brick chimneys rising from flattened sheets of smoking tin; traces of singed Christmas tinsel draped around house numbers; the melted tyres of bikes ridden to the beach in panic; backyard barbecue areas turned to charcoal; the local school's scorched veggie patch; and a wheelie bin misshapen by the heat spilling its load of dry leaves.

Mallacoota, Victoria. New Year's Day 2020. Picture: Rachel Mounsey

Mallacoota, Victoria. New Year's Day 2020. Picture: Rachel Mounsey

She estimates a whole street of houses and half of another near her place in Terra Nova Drive are gone.

Residents came together to put out the flames on one of her neighbour's houses.

"Everyone did so well to save as many houses as they did," Rachel said.

Mallacoota, Victoria. New Year's Day 2020. Picture: Rachel Mounsey

Mallacoota, Victoria. New Year's Day 2020. Picture: Rachel Mounsey

"I fear our town has lost something of its character with the sorts of homes that are gone. But the way the community has come together through this gives us hope for the future, that's for sure."

This story Terror on Terra Nova Drive Mallacoota: photos of fire's fury first appeared on The Canberra Times.