'HELL on earth' is how central Victorian firefighters have described the fire in the East Gippsland town of Mallacoota.
A District 2 strike team of 28 firefighters have returned to Bendigo after spending the past five days supporting crews in the east of the state.
Firefighters from District 20 - which includes Kerang and Pyramid Hill - also helped the Gippsland crews.
David Hutchings from the Lockwood Fire Brigade has been a firefighter for 20 years, but said the conditions in Mallacoota were unlike anything he had seen before.
"I was with a crew on Black Saturday," Mr Hutchings said. "What we've just done is nothing like Black Saturday.
"It was incredible. We saw the dawn. We saw the world go black, the world go red, and then the next thing I know we're about 15 hours later and still fighting fires. So no, I've never seen anything like it."
The team started in Swan Reach, before moving to Nowa Nowa to help prepare the town for the oncoming fire around Orbost.
The group were then sent to the coastal town of Mallacoota, where thousands of people remain stranded.
"We started prepping the town for water points and all that," Maiden Gully volunteer firefighter Johnathon Roskam said.
"The good news was the fire front slowed down and the wind change wasn't going to happen until a lot later. So that gave us a little bit of time to do more preparation.
"Then we got, I think, two hours sleep and then we were back at it. Then it went pitch black as people have seen on social media.
"Then the fire front came in. It was hell."
About 4000 people sheltered at the Mallacoota beach on New Year's Eve, while the town was flattened by fire.
Thousands were still stranded on Thursday night, with the navy coming to evacuate the town early on Friday morning.
District 2 Commander Chris Jacobsen said the central Victorian firefighters did the CFA proud in extremely difficult conditions.
"They have probably been in as thick fire as any firefighters were ever sent to," he said.
"When they go away, they don't know if they are going to be doing back burns, if they're going to be doing clean-up work, down time - these guys and girls have been in the thick of it.
"We're exceptionally proud of the work they've done protecting that community."
Jeremy Purden from the Bendigo Fire Brigade was one of the many who returned from the fires in East Gippsland.
He also supported NSW crews late last year, but said the conditions this time around were different.
"The initial front of what we had coming towards us (in NSW), that was a lot more easy to handle I suppose," he said. "That was more going in and cleaning up.
"This was actually a massive thing coming towards us that we could not stop until we got to the point where we could move in, slow it down, and we caught it.
"We were just very fortunate to be able to help the community out and do what we could. I think without us in place, I think it might have been a lot different."
All three firefighters said they felt it was their responsibility to protect the community.
"We do it because we need to do it," Mr Roskam said. "To me, the real people that did the best job - better than the firefighters - were the communities there.
"We had to do it. If we hadn't, it would have been horrible."
The firefighters were welcomed home on Wednesday night with a gathering of people at the Bendigo Airport.
Katie Bouwmeester, Mr Roskam's fiance, said the community just wanted to show their appreciation.
"I just want to thank all of the firefighters," she said. "They're all amazing. They're heroes and it's certainly something that I couldn't do.
"I just think that each and every one of them are amazing."
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