Battling the worst bushfires in recent Australian history has become an all-of-government operation in recent weeks, as witnessed by the awful images reaching the rest of the world’s TV news reports. Last week, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) boosted its contribution to Operation Bushfire Assist with the deployment of its new CANBERRA-class Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD), HMAS ADELAIDE, to the southern coast of New South Wales (NSW).
Adelaide has joined HMAS CHOULES, already deployed off the coast of Victoria, meaning that two of the RAN’s three amphibious ships are now providing maritime support to the state fire rescue, supply and evacuation missions.
CHOULES – the RAN’s 16,000t Landing Ship Dock (LSD) – equipped with a helicopter and landing craft has already completed two evacuation missions at the town of Mallacoota on the south coast of Victoria.
Cdre Scott Houlihan, commanding officer of HMAS CHOULES has given MON some insight into the ship’s role during this time, explaining that CHOULES had been designated as the humanitarian and disaster response (HADR) vessel for the 2019-2020 Christmas and New Year holiday period: she was thus on reduced notice to move within 48 hours.
“This means the ship is already stored with all the kit needed for this type of emergency and is ready to go,” he told MON. “I got the phone call on 31 December  at about 1700, saying that we were being activated and we needed to get down to Mallacoota and conduct an evacuation of an unknown number of people isolated there because of the fires in the region.”
CHOULES was ready to leave within 17 hours, departing on 1 January and Houlihan said this was a testament to the crew and the supporting services that made themselves available to get the ship ready. During the transit he contacted the head of the Rural Fire Service, who was commanding officer in Mallacoota, to get details of the situation.
On arrival the following day, Houlihan explained he met with officials in the town to discuss how they would conduct the evacuation and to complete the planning process.
“One of the most important things is messaging,” he said, explaining that tourists have valuable cars, caravans or holiday homes and time is needed for them to pack and make their property secure before they are comfortable to leave.
“We set up a processing centre in town at the recreation centre and we did a number of town hall meetings where the police and I spoke to all the locals that wanted to come in […] We told them if they wanted to be evacuated by sea to put their names on a list and we were also able to determine if there were any medical needs,” he said.
During this period, CHOULES transported 10,000l of diesel fuel to a local service station for the authorities to distribute as needed. Houlihan said a large diesel generator provided power for about 50% of the town, but only minimal food and water was required as shops and bars were still running.
CHOULES used its large LCM-8 and two smaller LCVP landing craft, plus two LARC amphibious vehicles, to move over 1,100 evacuees aboard on 3 January. However, the ship was unable to launch its MRH-90 TAIPAN helicopter due to low visibility conditions of less than 200m.
The LSD has accommodation for 488 people and Houlihan said that the ship’s company gave up their cabins so that families, especially those with older people or children, could be accommodated in some degree of comfort. The rest used medical stretchers or mats for sleeping during the transit to Hastings in Westernport. From here, the evacuees were taken by bus around Port Phillip Bay to Melbourne.
CHOULES has since returned to Mallacoota, completing a second evacuation of a further 280 people. It remains on station and is continuing to resupply the town.
Tim Fish in Australia for MON