The ADF’s deputy chief of joint operations, Rear Admiral Jaimie Hatcher, said a decision on whether to evacuate people was “very likely” but that this was subject to talks with state authorities on Thursday.
“I want to make sure that we support them in the best way we possibly can without making their challenges more difficult,” he told ABC News on Wednesday afternoon.
“I would anticipate that in the very near future there’ll be a decision taken, and what’s important is that the ADF is properly poised to support, from as early as tomorrow morning.”
A large humanitarian ship, HMAS Choules, sailed from Sydney on Wednesday morning and can deliver supplies including water, food, fuel and medical help, with a heavy-lifting Taipan helicopter on board.
An aviation training vessel, the MV Sycamore, also left Sydney on Wednesday and can carry a helicopter.
The scheduled arrival “early on the morning” on Thursday is earlier than indicated when the deployments were announced on New Year’s Eve with expectations the ships would arrive in the area on Friday.
About 250 crew and contractors are on the two vessels to provide “logistics and evacuation support” to communities in eastern Victoria and the south coast of New South Wales.
A medical team is already on board HMAS Choules and will have the capacity to land at Mallacoota with the help of an amphibious beach team and landing craft.
“Choules is also carrying humanitarian assistance and disaster relief supplies including fresh water, medical aid, food, mobility options and temporary shelter,” a Defence spokesperson said.
“Choules and Sycamore will be able to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief support including beach recovery of isolated civilians and shore logistic support to isolated people.”
Three Chinook helicopters flew out of the Amberley RAAF base in Townsville on Wednesday and are expected to take until Friday to arrive at East Sale in Victoria, the closest base to the communities needing the most urgent help.
Rear Admiral Hatcher said two Spartan transport planes would begin carrying firefighters in order to get them to firegrounds as swiftly as possible.
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said Australians could be assured the ADF was providing extensive support to emergency services, as it had since early November 2019.
The significant expansion in the ADF operation came hours after Victorian premier Daniel Andrews called for more military help on New Year’s Eve, amid a political debate over whether more help should have been sent sooner.
While the Greens called for a royal commission into the bushfires, Labor leader Anthony Albanese said the priority should be a meeting of state and territory leaders with the Prime Minister.
“We have seen that there has been, therefore, a lack of coordination, a lack of a national approach, for example, to the compensation for volunteer firefighters,” Mr Albanese said.
“And we have seen changes in terms of the amount of defence assets which have been applied here. It is appropriate that we actually convene all the levels of government for what is a national crisis.”
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.