Navy Ship Transformed into Doggy Daycare as Owners Flee Harrowing Mallacoota Bushfire

The cargo hold of HMAS Choules was transformed into a doggie daycare to accommodate 135 dogs as their owners fled “apocalyptic” fire conditions in Mallacoota, Victoria, on January 3.

Cassandra Smith, along with her husband Nicholas and 14-month-old Labrador named Lexi, were among the one thousand people evacuated from Mallacoota on HMAS Choules and taken to Western Port on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula and then onto the Melbourne Convention Centre.

“The Navy set up makeshift containers and pallet boards as pens for the dogs. There were 135 dogs, 2 cats, 2 birds and a rabbit – not all in the same area, thankfully,” Cassandra Smith said.

Mallacoota was one of the worst-hit areas of the Victorian bushfire crisis, with reports of 4000 people trapped on the foreshore on New Years Eve as nearby fires raged.

Smith and her family had been holidaying in Mallacoota each year since 2004. She said the coastal town had never seen such horror before. It’s reported 80 homes have been lost in Mallacoota.

“On December 30 the CFA briefed the community and said if you hear fire sirens, you have to evacuate. We left our campsite and were in boats, wearing long sleeved cotton shirts and hats to protect ourselves from falling embers. We also had food for the three dogs between us. On New Years Eve morning the sky went black with smoke and then red. We could hear gas bottles exploding and houses burning. People didn’t know what was happening,” Cassandra Smith said.

“When the worst of the fire passed, it was like a war zone. There were people walking around with flannels on their faces, wearing ski masks. By midnight, no one was celebrating the new year. We were all exhausted. No one said, ‘Happy New Year!’ Instead they were all saying, ‘Are you ok, mate?’”

Smith, an asthma suffer, was taken to Far Saracen Esso Oil ship for treatment on January 2, along with a group of parents with small children. She was then transferred to HMAS Choules, with her family and their pets. “The stories on the ship were gut wrenching. So many people had lost their homes and were on a ship to a city they didn’t know.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed at least 24 people had died this bushfire season. Credit: Cassandra Smith via Storyful