A red sky sprinkled with embers. Thick, toxic smoke. Breathing masks for her kids.
This wasn’t the way Meaghan Wegg envisioned New Year’s Eve with her family.
Montreal-based Wegg, 34, her Australian-born husband Tim Buckley, 37, and their two children Georgia, 3, and Jackson, 5, were camping with friends in Mallacoota, Australia last month. They spent an afternoon keeping cool at the beach. When it was time to head back to the campsite, their picturesque trip took a turn.
“That’s when we heard the sirens. They said, ‘You have 10 minutes to get out of here because there are bushfires coming,'” Wegg told Global News.
“That put us into a state of shock.”
Wegg and her family were among nearly 4,000 people forced to suddenly flee as multiple wildfires closed in around the small southeastern town in the state of Victoria.
Fires have ravaged much of Australia since September and have remained tightly wound around the southeastern part of the country, particularly in Victoria and New South Wales.
Since September, fires have burned more than eight million hectares of land across the country.
Wegg and her husband packed quickly and drove their family to a designated shelter on another beach. There, they set up mattresses on the sand to sleep with the kids.
She said an unusual “glare” in the sky woke them up around 1 a.m.
“It looks like the size of a tornado, but it was a fire coming toward us,” she said. “It was quite scary.”
Within minutes of the sky turning red, the winds picked up. There was sand everywhere, Wegg said, making it difficult to see.
They decided to make another escape — this time to a nearby cinema.
The family trudged through water to reach the building, which had become a makeshift shelter for hundreds of other people. Buckley carried the two kids while Wegg held tightly onto a friend’s hand.
“As soon as we walked into the cinema, it was all black, no power, full of people devastated, crying,” she said. “It felt like a movie scene. Like we were going to get trapped there.”
To keep the kids calm, the cinema played the movies “Frozen” and “Happy Feet.” While it helped, the reality was unavoidable.
Ash fell from the vents while local firefighters doused the building with water, Wegg said. The temperature inside the room was borderline unbearable.
“We were drenched in sweat from overheating and covered in ash,” she said.
“That was when I had my scariest moment. I was panicking a little, trying to take care of the kids, keeping the kids calm, looking back at Tim.”
Then, as if a sign “from the universe,” Wegg said, the winds turned in their favour, pushing the fires away from the town. The evacuees were allowed outside again to cool down and reassess.
“It was this amazing source of energy, this source of power,” she said.
But firefighters were still struggling.
Wegg’s husband joined them to help control a blaze creeping near the campsite nearby. They moved their belongings nearer to the cinema and started filling buckets of clean water. A human chain was formed to transport drinking water from the campsite to the cinema.
For days, the family slept in a tent or outside on a mattress, waiting for rescue.
Her daughter Georgia’s third birthday — Jan. 3 — came and went.
“My husband told them it’s an adventure,” she said. “We made it really fun.”
Despite the shrinking fire threat, evacuating the campground was volatile.
Smoke hindered helicopters’ landing. Boats were transporting hundreds, but Wegg’s children were deemed too small to be safe onboard.
She said volunteers from the Red Cross, police officers, and firefighters kept them fed, warm and clean while they waited for rescue. A brief return of electricity allowed Wegg to charge her phone and load up games and movies, which kept the kids occupied longer.
Eventually, after multiple failed attempts, a Chinook helicopter landed and took the family to safety.
“It was amazing when we landed and we actually smelled fresh air,” she said.
Wegg said the fear hasn’t completely worn off, but that the family is feeling better.
“We’re all safe,” she said. “The firefighters, the navy, the army, the Red Cross… all these people who have been donating volunteering their time… it really helps. We really felt it.”