By five o’clock that evening the sky was bright red above the mountain ranges and the hot northerly winds continued to blow the smoke into the township below. Visibility was reduced to 100 metres and the lights from the convoy were shrouded in haze. Craig walked to the front of the line and climbed into the cabin of the lead vehicle. His smart phone sounded the alert for the evacuation relaying to the families in their vehicles behind him. He exchanged a look with Sandy as he switched on the ignition and roared the V8 diesel engine into life. Adjusting the rear vision mirrors he announced: “It is time to go!”
“We are in God’s hands now!” Sandy said as Craig slowly maneuvered the Humvee across the car park, towards the exit to the highway. Craig’s hands trembled a little with the effort; worried about the enormity of this responsibility. He had kept his recently diagnosed health problems a secret from everyone except Sandy. Her experience in the field as an Army Medical Officer had been a strong support for him. It was Sandy who had given him the strength to lead this convoy and it was serendipity that she was assigned to his crew! He was determined to succeed in this final act of bravery.
The countdown to the evacuation had been an anxious time for all the residents of the town. They had been on high alert for many days as the extreme weather conditions continued to worsen. Fire plans were in place and everyone had done what they could to protect their properties, moved their animals and prepared for the worst. The final call to evacuate was sent from the Victorian Government emergency services on 2nd January 2020.
Craig and the crew from the local Army Base had been deployed to the small isolated town days earlier and had been inundated with questions and concerns from the local community members. “How can we get out? When are we leaving? Where are we going?” Caring for their concerns and needs had kept Craig and Sandy focused on their task ahead.
They knew that the community members were exhausted from the constant heat and smoke-filled air during the days prior to New Year’s Eve, and that they were apprehensive about leaving their homes. They had helped families pack for their departure to the nearest relief centre. Adults had packed their family photos, documents, torches, mobile devices, chargers, clothing, toiletries, food, water, cash and medicines for 3 days; while kids had packed clothing, towels, blankets, pillows, their pets and favorite Christmas gifts. They had stayed vigilant, watching news broadcasts, and checking fire incidents in their VIC emergency apps on their smart phones.
Craig had registered the names of everyone online, to let people know they were safe. Sandy had all the medical supplies required. They were ready – the lives of 240 souls were in their hands!
“We can do this!” – Craig said. “This is our call!”