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New Year’s Eve 2019 was shaping up to be a busy summer’s day at Malua Bay on the NSW Far South Coast. The forecast was for hot weather and holidaymakers were preparing to hit the beach to cool off. 

Bateman’s Bay Surf Life Saving Club volunteers couldn’t have anticipated the bushfires that would ravage their community that day and the pivotal role they would play in saving thousands of lives.

By 10am bushfires were bearing down on Malua Bay and thousands of people, pets and livestock were seeking refuge on the beach. The surf club had become an evacuation centre and volunteer surf lifesavers had mobilised a response team.

Bateman’s Bay Club Captain Anthony Bellette said the first warning he got about the unfolding disaster was a text message from Emergency Services telling residents to evacuate to the beach and seek shelter there.

“I had a look at the wind direction and it was then that I thought this could get real. It was at that point that I sent a message to our callout team asking for them to come to the club because I thought we could become an evacuation point,” said Anthony

“Straight away we had cars pulling up to the surf club. We had too many cars in the car park so we distributed high-vis vests and club radios and started trying to control the traffic. Soon we had hundreds of cars overflowing into the park opposite the club.

“I sent a message to some clubbies who were on their way and asked them to get food and water for 500 people. They said ‘how do we cater for 500 people?’ I said we’re going to need everything! We’re going to need nappies, baby wipes – everything!

“As more people started arriving, we ushered them into the club. We printed registration forms and by the end of the day we had 1,270 people registered and accounted for as safe.

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“The smoke started to get thick before the fires arrived and people started having respiratory problems. I put the call in to the local chemist requesting Ventolin puffers. They said take 10 and bring back what you don’t use.

“As spot fires started approaching we could see the houses across the bay lighting up. I spoke to the team and we decided that the surf club might not be the safest place to stay. So we moved everyone down onto the beach. All the guys did an awesome job getting people down there and keeping them calm.

“We organised our buggy to collect people in the streets who couldn’t get to the club – elderly people. We had the police jump in the buggy with us and tell people to evacuate who were trying to defend their homes with hoses.

“We had 12 clubbies helping us on the day. We made an announcement asking for help and other volunteers jumped on board to help including three nurses and a doctor.

“We had to evacuate a guy having severe respiratory problems. We got him into a police car and a club member accompanied him all the way to the hospital while giving him oxygen therapy.

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“At 10pm we established an overnight rostering system. Our members  slept for three hours then came back on duty for three hours. We even had two people rostered on the roof spotting fires.

“The next morning when we woke up the local butcher brought 50kgs of meat and we got the BBQ started up and began cooking! Everyone was given breakfast.”

Stories from the community are now starting to emerge about the calm, professional leadership displayed by Batemans Bay Surf Life Saving Club members as they responded to the bushfire crisis.

Former Australian Wallaby and Bronte Surf Club member, Al Baxter was among those who sought shelter at Batemans Bay surf club. He and his wife Anna and their two children spent the night at Malua Bay after being evacuated from their beach house nearby.

“We got to the beach about 7am but by 10am we could hear the rumbling of the fire coming from the back of the beach. That was really scary. And we had burning hot ash and a burning hot draft hit us,” said Al Baxter on the ABC’s Drum program.

Due to widespread power outages, mobile phone communications in the area were lost during the bushfires.

“It’s really disquieting. You just take for granted power and phones and things like that. We were texting friends, family and neighbours telling them that we were okay and then suddenly when you don’t have the ability to do that anymore you realise that things are more serious than you first thought,” said Baxter.

Al Baxter said that the Rural Fire Service couldn’t actually access Malua Bay when the fire front hit and by the time they did, their fireground radio network had gone down. He praised the Batemans Bay lifesavers for keeping everyone informed using Club Captain, Anthony Bellette’s personal satellite phone.

“I can’t say how fantastic they were. They kept us informed all day. They had the only communications there. They had contact with the major surf rescue people so they could tell us what was happening.

 “When the embers hit the surf club they were there dousing it down. Then on the beach they were walking around checking that people were okay. They were just fantastic.

“We spent the night on the beach because we were surrounded by fires. We suspected the house had gone because we watched the headland burn. We went back the next day and confirmed our fears,” Baxter said.

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Former police officer Kim Mallett, who was a first responder during the Canberra bushfires in 2003, praised Anthony Bellette and his team’s response.

 “The gravity of the situation over those 24 to36 hours was not lost on me. There is no doubt his actions and that of his team saved hundreds of lives.

“The entire team that was on duty that day are a credit to SLSNSW. From coordinating volunteers to applying first aid, comforting those who were in a state of panic and emotional, providing food, communicating and fighting the fire to protect our new safe haven in the club,” said Kim Mallett.

“I am acutely aware that the location was never intended be an evacuation centre, nor were they resourced to be able to support the number of people who influxed the area. With this limited capability they still did everything they could to ensure we had water, food, shelter and protection. 

“They should all be commended for their efforts, and SLSNSW should be proud of the people they have representing their organisation. Whilst not entirely related to water safety, they certainly executed the organisation’s mission to save lives,” she said.

Jess Williams, whose family owns a holiday house at Rosedale, had friends staying with her when the fire front hit the area. They were evacuated to Malua Bay, thinking they would only be there for a few short hours. They ended up staying for more than 24 hours.

“The bravery, confidence and kindness of each and every Surf Life Saving member on that day was extraordinary,” she said 

“They took care of over 2,000 people who fled to Malua Bay as a safe place. It was not an evacuation point but the only safe place we could get to. 

“In addition to the people sheltering, there were also horses, dogs, birds, reptiles and cats.    

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“The surf lifesavers asked if there was anything they could get us and said we are safe and we should try and sleep. They said they would watch over all of us and if things changed, they would let us know. The fires were burning all night around Malua Bay.

“Each and every member of that Surf Life Saving Club needs to be acknowledged for their incredible dedication to saving lives,” said Jess Williams.

Batemans Bay Surf Life Saving Club is now operating as a community hub to provide assistance to local residents. Anthony Bellette and his team of lifesavers continue to work to support people who’ve lost everything in the bushfires.

“We’ve opened the club to the community. We have people in our kitchens cooking food and baking scones. We’re handing out groceries and people can use our facilities to have a shower,” said Anthony Bellette.

“Mobile phone networks are still down so the NBN has set up a free wireless network at the club so people can contact friends and family. We also have power boards here so people can charge their phones and run their laptops,” Bellette concluded.

Steven Pearce, CEO of Surf Life Saving NSW, praised the efforts of the Batemans Bay surf lifesavers.

“Anthony Bellette and his team’s efforts in responding to the bushfire emergency was nothing short of extraordinary. They were calm under pressure and mobilised the limited resources available to them to protect the lives of thousands of people,” said Steven Pearce.

“We’re enormously proud of the team at Batemans Bay – their response during the bushfire emergency and their continuing efforts in supporting the community in the aftermath,” he concluded.


Friday 10 January 2020