Bega Valley opens evacuation centres across region to provide shelter during bushfire crisis

HARD TO BREATHE: Smoke haze looms over the Bega Evacuation centre on Saturday afternoon.
HARD TO BREATHE: Smoke haze looms over the Bega Evacuation centre on Saturday afternoon.

Many people received texts alerting them to evacuate, for others the messages read "it is too late to leave, seek shelter" as fires bore down across the Far South Coast on Saturday.

The populations of Merimbula and Bega were swelling as people were told to leave their homes and seek shelter in the larger towns.

Club Sapphire and the Bega Showgrounds provided the initial hub for early evacuations, while the Eden Fishermen's Club played a major role assisting tourists in the town before those sheltering there had to be evacuated on Saturday afternoon.

Just days after the community had rallied to home and feed thousands of displaced Victorians, the Eden community and surrounds found themselves being told to evacuate northward as fires approached on Saturday.

Stories of compassion and mateship were abundant: the Eden Whalers, Killer Whales and the town's high school had opened their grounds and manned the barbecue to provide free meals.

Businesses in town donated anything they could to help, bacon and eggs, fish and chips and more were brought down en-masse.

Bryan Hammond and his team at ARV Caravans had set up seven caravans for visitors to escape the smoke.

But by the weekend most of the visitors had safely left and it was Eden's own who were forced to make the decision to leave north.

Those caught in town were urged to seek shelter at both Aslings Beach and Snug Cove Wharf before a break in conditions on Sunday signalled for those people too to leave immediately north for Merimbula or Bega.

Further south in Kiah, Towamba and Mallacoota, fires moved too quickly for a chance to evacuate and Mallacoota was particularly hard hit with about 4000 people sheltering between the town hall, the beach, while some sought the safety of boats.

Mallacoota had been struck on New Years Eve, December 31, when the East Gippsland fires engulfed the town and surrounds.

The fires were so devastating they would go on to spawn the so-called border fire that advanced toward and is now slowly moving north west.

People retreated to safety of the beach and jetty, but have since faced a two-day wait for HMAS Choules to begin evacuations to Melbourne - a 17-hour round-trip for the vessel.

However, some residents remained trapped in the area waiting for helicopter evacuation on Monday - almost a week after fire struck the area.

The Towamba Town Hall has provided shelter for the area with Burragate fire crews joining forces with Towamba crews to defend against the fire front from the southeast.

With those who could evacuate making their way north, registrations at Club Sapphire and the showgrounds surged and many sporting grounds and clubs were soon opening their gates to provide refuge for anyone with a caravan or camper as more overflow areas came online with the influx of evacuees.

Merimbula Diggers president Jason Raeck was among the volunteers opening grounds, helping coordinate at Berrambool Oval, where there were more than 100 caravans and campers on Saturday morning alone.

Club Sapphire was filling quickly and Mr Raeck said at the time there was still "plenty of room" with a number of amenities put in place for evacuees.

"All the facilities are available including showers, toilets, kitchen and air con etc," he said.

The club have also installed wifi so people can access the internet and stay up to date with the fire situation through the NSW Rural Fire Service and council.

"Details are in the club rooms on the noticeboard," Mr Raeck said.

As of Monday pets were still welcome at the ground, with a number of evacuees still on site.

A Bega Valley Shire Council spokesman said as the Bega Showground filled additional options were also quickly adapted in Bega with the recreation ground and indoor stadium opening their gates.

"While they're not official evacuation sites, they are providing an overflow service for people with caravans or campers," they said.

As evacuations continued, the Merimbula RSL Club and Tura Country Club were also brought online as official evacuation centres with around 700 people shared between the two by Saturday night.

On Monday, it was announced it was safe for residents from Merimbula, Tura Beach, Eden, Bega, Tathra and Kalaru who moved to evacuation centres during the bushfire crisis to return home.

Bega Valley Shire Mayor Kristy McBain warned there was still an active fireground in the Bega Valley and while rain had begun to fall over the Valley in the morning she urged residents to not be complacent and continue monitoring the conditions and watching the NSW Rural Fire Service's Fires Near Me website and app.

Roads remaining closed included the Princes Hwy south of Eden, the Bermagui-Tathra Rd and Dr George Mountain Rd.

Later on Monday, it was announced that people who evacuated from Bermagui due to the bushfire threat could also return home.

At a community briefing in Bermagui, NSW Police South Coast District Chief Inspector Peter Volf said phone reception in the town was working again and electricity was hoped to be supplied to the town on Wednesday morning.

He also said a Woolworths truck was on its way with a generator ready to restock the town's store and fuel was also coming.

Bega Valley Shire Council's director assets and operations Anthony McMahon said the waste facility at Bermagui would be opened to the community from Tuesday to dispose of any waste accumulated during the bushfire emergency for free.

However, at this stage council is not accepting any fire-affected material from damaged or destroyed homes, sheds or other structures.

Council also said Cobargo and Bemboka tips have been impacted by fire and are unusable.

Mr McMahon said the drinking water in Bermagui was still not safe to drink without boiling, but council was working on returning the town to its normal safe supply.

Mayor McBain said the NSW Rural Fire Service had informed her the weather conditions may deteriorate at the end of the week.

This story Bega Valley opens evacuation centres across region to provide shelter during bushfire crisis first appeared on Bega District News.


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