For many of the Australian Defence Force personnel involved in Operation Bushfire Assist, there is an added personal connection to the ongoing emergency through family and friends directly impacted by the fires.

When Petty Officer Imagery Specialist Helen Frank was packing her kit to join HMAS Choules at short notice on New Year’s Eve, she was also getting updates on the fires at her parent’s home in Orbost in Victoria’s East Gippsland region.

A few days later that personal connection came to the fore when she was interacting with the first group of people to be evacuated from Mallacoota, just down the coast from Orbost.

“On December 31 when we got the call up, I’d been getting photos from my mum showing the fires, which came within 2kms of their house in Orbost,” Petty Officer Frank said.

“So when I was talking to people in Mallacoota and they heard my parents’ house was also in danger, we had that instant connection.”

Able Seaman Marine Technician Liliana Kleber experienced a similar connection when interacting with evacuees. She was due to travel to the family home in Tathra before she was called to rejoin Choules at short notice on New Year’s Eve.

Not only was the New South Wales south-coast town again under threat, but the fires that devastated Tathra in March 2018 were still fresh in her mind.

“Most of my friends lost their houses in the first round of fires and our family home was only saved after a water-bombing plane flew over and spared our home,” Able Seaman Kleber said.

“If I wasn’t on Choules I would have most likely been in an evacuation centre, but having also spent time in the past in East Gippsland I was very happy to be able to deploy and help people.”

“It’s a credit to our people that they can support these communities while at the same time knowing that their family or friends could be struggling or in danger.”

Many of Choules’ ship’s company came from far and wide in response to the emergency call out.

Leading Seaman Communications Information Specialist Afton Mitchell was preparing for a music festival in the northern New South Wales town of Bryon Bay before returning to Sydney to sail for Mallacoota – a town just down the road from her family home in Lakes Entrance.

“I’d been home at my mum’s place in Lakes Entrance just a couple of weeks earlier so it was a complete turnaround to get to Byron and then end up back on my home turf,” Leading Seaman Mitchell said.

“I grew up in Lakes Entrance but we used to spend our holidays in Mallacoota, so it’s a place I have a strong connection with.

“My mum knows business owners in Mallacoota and you’ll find that while East Gippsland is large in area, it’s very close among the various communities.”

While she was heartbroken at the devastation left by the bushfires, Leading Seaman Mitchell said it felt good to be making a positive contribution and knowing that other friends and family in the area were looking out for her mum.

Warrant Officer Arthur Mitcherson, Choules’ Command Warrant Officer, said the personal connection with the bushfire emergency had impacted many people, not just in Choules, but throughout Navy.

“It’s a credit to our people that they can support these communities while at the same time knowing that their family or friends could be struggling or in danger,” Warrant Officer Mitcherson said.

A Navy task group comprising Choules as well as HMAS Adelaide and MV Sycamore is working off the Australian south-east coast to aid various communities impacted by the bushfires.