Choules was 'good place' in bushfire hell

Commander Scott Houlihan briefed the people of Mallacoota before HMAS Choules took them to safety.
Commander Scott Houlihan briefed the people of Mallacoota before HMAS Choules took them to safety.

The commanding officer of HMAS Choules wandered among hundreds of people sleeping on the deck of his ship after they had escaped fire-ravaged Mallacoota.

Every nook and cranny of the Choules was filled with a person, dog or suitcase crammed with treasures, all headed to safety.

It was after midnight as the landing ship rounded Western Port when Commander Scott Houlihan noticed some of his crew also slumped on the deck.

"I was walking around and found members of my ship's company just sleeping in unique spots and wondered what was going on here," he said.

"The crew had given up all their cabins, their beds and everything for those that needed it.

"That really blew my mind at how much everyone sort of went out of their way to help each other, and the evacuees were exactly the same. They'd work out who was in more need.

"It confirmed that in times like these, we are in a good place. Humans are inherently nice people when they are faced with something like this."

The Australian Defence Force evacuated about 1400 people in two trips from the bushfire hit East Gippsland town in January.

This is Australia's largest peacetime humanitarian rescue mission since Cyclone Tracy in 1974.

For the ship's 200-odd crew, evacuations are a key part of their work.

"We knew how to configure the ship and what things needed to happen," Commander Houlihan told AAP.

"The (ADF) training was critical because ... (that) let us understand in big handfuls what needed to be done and how you go about it."

But what was unusual was working with a raft of emergency service agencies to help residents to safety and get supplies into the town.

Even the process of getting residents, who had fled their homes for the recreation centre, down to the embarkment point was a team effort.

The emergency services had scrounged up one bus but when word made its way around town, coaches came out of the woodwork.

"It was many players. It was definitely not the navy came in and did that - it was a real big group effort," he said.

The navy also shipped in essential supplies to the town, with diesel to power generators and even beer on the locals' request list.

"It's not that uncommon for Australians to want a beer," the captain said.

"While we took the beer in that run, we took fuel in the next run."

Members of HMAS Choules' company involved in the two January evacuations returned in February to unveil a plaque in town.

"It certainly has been something that is probably a once in a career type thing," Commander Houlihan said on reflection.

"We were able to do something to help out our fellow Australians, fellow human beings that were stuck ... we had the right equipment, the right training, people."

While the ship's deck is now clear, the human spirit of those fraught January days remains.

Australian Associated Press