SOMERVILLE, Australia (Reuters) - The first of thousands of residents and vacationers stranded on a beach in southeastern Australia landed near Melbourne on Saturday morning after a 20-hour journey by ship, relieved to escape terrifying smoke and fire.
They were rescued from Mallacoota, where 4,000 people fled to the waterfront on New Year's Eve as fires ripped through the town in one of the communities worst hit by wildfires burning across three states in southern Australia.
Extensive bushfires have killed 21 people so far since September and destroyed more than 5 million hectares (13 million acres) of land.
"For someone who's never been in a fire, it's very, very, frightening. I'm so happy to be here," said Emily Wellington, a 16-year-old from Melbourne who had gone to Mallacoota for a two-week holiday with family friends.
She and two other 16-year-olds were among the first 58 evacuated as they have asthma.
"They wanted us to get out so we don't get sick," Wellington said.
They spoke to reporters outside a relief centre about 65 kilometres (40 miles) southeast of Melbourne shortly after getting off the navy's MV Sycamore ship at Hastings, with little kids and their parents, elderly people and even some pet dogs.
A much bigger ship, carrying about 1,000 people, is due to arrive on Saturday afternoon, with buses lined up to ferry evacuees to the local recreation centre and Melbourne's convention centre.
"We've never had to deal with anything like this in our shire's history," the mayor of Mornington Peninsula Shire, Sam Hearn, told reporters outside the Somerville Recreation Centre which had been turned into a relief centre.
One of the teens on the first ship, Darcy Brown, lost her family home in Mallacoota, which they had just moved into a month ago.
"It was so devastating to see. All the tin is flat to the ground. Some of the bricks are still standing," Brown told reporters.
She said the fires hit the town suddenly.
"Very scary. It was so dusty, smoky. The sky was red one minute, then completely black the next," she said.
Remarkably relaxed and chatty on Saturday, the girls said they had slept and eaten well on the navy boat.
"It was so comfortable on the ship," Wellington said.
Her friend Tahnee Meehan told Reuters her parents had stayed on in Mallacoota, waiting to drive back in her father's truck when the one road out of town reopens, as he needs the truck for his job as an electrician.
Authorities have said it might take weeks to reopen the road.
Back in Melbourne, the girls were eager to shower and put their smoke-tainted clothes in the wash.
What were they going to do first?
"Hug my parents, definitely," Wellington said.
(Reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by Kikm Coghill)
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