Granya to Corryong is a trip David Wortmann makes regularly.
As mayor of a Victorian council with one of the smallest populations, but largest geographic areas, the hour-plus journey for a council meeting, community event or follow up on the latest gripe about the condition of a local road is part and parcel of the job.
More often than not, the Upper Murray is picture perfect.
It's undisputed natural beauty helped by reliable annual rainfall.
But in late 2019, the western end of Towong Shire around Tallangatta was gripped by drought and closer to Corryong things were marginally better.
Tinder dry bushland had locals feeling nervous the most, acutely aware if the wrong set of circumstances lined-up the region was a monumental fire risk.
The Upper Murray has seen fires before including Black Saturday 1939.
But what unfolded from late December to mid-January last year was unprecedented.
The bushfire started near Walwa on December 29 from a lightning strike and then spotted across the Murray River and took off.
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It burnt to the edge of Corryong and what Cr Wortmann witnessed on that first trip from Granya was truly confronting.
Charred fences flattened, badly burnt cattle wandering dangerously across roads or already dead, wooden power poles swinging in the breeze.
Combine power and mobile phone services being cut to the mix and it was no surprise Towong Shire was one of the areas declared a state of disaster by Premier Daniel Andrews on January 2.
"It was the perfect storm," Cr Wortmann said.
"We've known for quite some time we haven't got the capacity as a small rural shire to handle a large fire emergency and this was beyond anything anyone had seen before.
"We've had fires before and it has burnt bushland, but they have never impacted our communities and farmland like this.
"To see all the livestock dead on the side of the road was just heartbreaking."
Private property was the hardest hit.
According to council data published in May, more than 650 properties were impacted in some way; 42 homes either destroyed or left inhabitable and another 18 badly damaged; 5000-plus stock gone; 19,000 tonnes of desperately needed hay razed, 35,000 hectares of pastures scorched and 3300 kilometres of fencing lost.
Destroying badly burnt stock was an immediate priority, but roadblocks to sharing information among agencies due to privacy laws soon surfaced.
"We wanted to know who was in desperate trouble and who needed help, but information couldn't be shared," Cr Wortmann said.
"We were trying to get roads open and getting onto dangerous trees on the sides of roads.
"We know there are some things we could have done better, but gee our people worked hard.
"To lose your home is devastating, but because we are a farming community the livestock losses were really upsetting.
"If a truck rolls over and some stock is killed, we can handle that.
"But to travel up and see dead stock which was bloated up in the heat and families waking up every day and seeing that is so distressing."
We've known for quite some time we haven't got the capacity as a small rural shire to handle a large fire emergency and this was beyond anything anyone had seen beforeDavid Wortmann
Many Towong Shire staff, including some who had just started with council, cut short their traditional Christmas-New Year breaks to help.
Cr Wortmann, a Granya CFA brigade member, wasn't involved when the fire initially took hold, but a week later when temperatures and winds soared again the his crew was deployed to the Walwa, Tintaldra and Pine Mountain areas.
"There were a number of houses lost that day unfortunately," he said.
"There were people who lost part of their farms when the fire ran through before New Year and then they got hit again after initially thinking they had survived the worst of it.
"There was one family at the top end of Biggara who milked for a month using generators.
"Even though flames didn't get into the town, Walwa was severely impacted with no power, no water, no communication for days."
The immediate fire crisis began to dissipate by the end of January, but another challenge was lurking around the corner and would directly impact and slow the massive recovery effort underway.
Restoring fences was an immediate priority and help poured in.
But the rapidly escalating national shutdown due to COVID-19 in March forced some to make an earlier than planned departure from an area in desperate help.
The Upper Murray remained virus-free, but the blanket restrictions cut deep into activities the community desperately needed to begin a long recovery process.
The Upper Murray Football-Netball League season also was wiped out by COVID at a time when the competition was also fighting for its long-term future.
"It has just devastated the community," Cr Wortmann said.
"They came from terrific families and had support.
"I can't emphasize enough for people to ask others how they are going, how your mates are going.
"What we've seen with COVID is neighbours not seeing eachother for seven or eight months.
"They have been so busy rebuilding fences and so forth.
"They didn't have those regular activities where people get together and connect."
Those scars were still clearly evident when Mary O'Brien came to the Upper Murray late in the year and conducted two mental health seminars.
Separate events for men and women were held and well attended.
Ms O'Brien, a Queenslander, founded the program "Are You Bogged Mate?" and discovered a community still hurting many months on from the fires.
"For 130 men to turn up of their own free will indicated to me how much pain that community is in," she said.
"You don't have a mental health event and get those type of numbers.
"It doesn't matter what sort of tragedy it is, floods, fires, drought, whatever, people need to be able to connect and communicate.
"I talk a lot about emptying your bucket.
"But when COVID hit people were all locked down and they didn't get to that healing point by just doing normal things like hanging out together, having local sport.
"You could just pick up on that pain from the audience sitting there."
Cr Wortmann said his shire had not been forgotten by federal and state governments following the fires.
Grant money has flowed in to fix infrastructure damaged in the fires or had been pushed to the backburner due to lack of available funding for a council which traditionally runs on a shoestring budget.
"It's going to take years to recover from a year like this," he said.
"We won't be wasting any opportunities to remind politicians not to forget us.
"Resilience is a word used all the time, but they are a tough bunch up here.
"Farmers spend money.
"There is a really big opportunity to develop our tourism market in the next couple of years while overseas travel remains pretty much off limits.