One year on from a devastating summer, The Border Mail visits fire-affected communities to find out how people are going and what lies ahead.
Corryong and Guys Forest
Not everyone is prepared to say 2020 was a bad year.
"I had a granddaughter born, so I am not writing off the whole year," Marita Albert said.
"I also published a book in June, something else I'd been working on for 10 years.
"So having that locked away time actually worked well, it's not been a complete waste.
"It's been a very challenging year of change, is how I would sum it up."
Project officer for The Man From Snowy River Museum in Corryong, Marita looks forward to visitors coming back and enjoying the collection, which includes items of national and even international significance.
Similarly, Corryong's Ros McKenzie hopes her volunteer groups can soon again contribute fully to the community.
"Just getting back to being able to do the things we did with the tourist association and Lions," she said.
"We usually do catering, we haven't been able to do any of that, not to the level we usually do."
Sometimes things are going along well and then you wake up one day and you may not want to get out of bed or you may not want to do anything, that's certainly affecting a lot of people.Pastor Graeme van Brummelen
Guys Forest farmers George and Fiona Kucka, still repairing the damage brought by last summer's bushfires, preferred not to gaze too far ahead.
"Don't set goals because you never know what's around the corner," George said with a grin.
"We'll continue working on the fencing and just keep on keeping on, take what comes," Fiona added.
Corryong Baptist Pastor Graeme van Brummelen knows recovery from such a year may not be continuously upwards.
"I think each individual will have moments where it's just an ebb and flow," he said.
"Sometimes things are going along well and then you wake up one day and you may not want to get out of bed or you may not want to do anything, that's certainly affecting a lot of people.
"Getting people talking and looking after themselves, we certainly are going to be working on that going forward."
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'We were lucky'
About half the houses along Shelley Road at Guys Forest were destroyed when the fire came through on December 30, 2019.
Fiona and two adult sons prepared their home during the day and George, the Corryong Country Fire Authority strike team leader, arrived back to help just as the front drew near about 9pm.
"We were lucky with what we managed to save, we saved our house and the infrastructure around the house," George said.
But they lost all the fencing on their 1250-hectare property, all fodder and 136 animals, either immediately or needing to be put down.
No power, no mobile coverage and George losing part of his finger two days later when hurt by a trapped cow he was trying to help just added more complexities.
But Fiona said by burning on the first day, they had certainty about the fire's impact, however difficult, whereas others in the Upper Murray still had days, even weeks of worry and waiting ahead.
"I guess the hard thing was we were ready for recovery and it was still an active fire fight," she said.
The Kuckas have fixed half their fences, boundaries "pretty much done".
BlazeAid volunteers assisted, as did members of Australian Sikh Support, who turned up and asked how they could help.
"They were awesome, some of them didn't speak a lot of English," George said.
"As a cultural experience, it was fantastic, they were really good, easy to get on with."
The Victorian Farmers Federation organised fodder, people would arrive with food or just to see how they were - and then the coronavirus pandemic hit.
"Once COVID started that was it, everyone pulled out," George said.
"All of a sudden you'd lose all the support networks that you did have. It affects your mental health, of course."
Fiona felt the restrictions meant people didn't have the chance to debrief during such a stressful time.
"That's probably the worst thing about COVID, the fact communities didn't come together, couldn't talk," she said.
Their work on the farm continued during lockdown but one year on, there's still a lot to do.
"You seem to spend 24 hours a day just trying to get back on your feet, seven days a week, it really is that," George said.
"We have been forgotten a little bit, but through no one's fault, it's just a circumstance thing."
Need still significant
Graeme recently spoke to one farmer who had 13 kilometres of fencing yet to complete.
"We're still finding people in little nooks and crannies who haven't sought any aid, doing it tough and we've been helping people still in that immediate relief area," the pastor said.
"Some people just like to be quietly plodding along and doing their own thing, I think that's a fairly typical thing of farming communities.
"They've got a certain amount of pride in getting things done and looking after their properties the best way they can and putting their hand out is probably difficult for them."
While Towong Shire had avoided coronavirus cases so far, the accompanying restrictions had contributed to "keeping people quiet".
"Certainly we've been slowed down because of COVID, now that we seem to have more freedom to do things, I think that's really good," Graeme said.
Corryong Baptist Church's community connectedness program has led to activities like horsemanship, art and cake decorating.
About 120 men and 80 women attended the two sessions of mental health seminars Are You Bogged Mate?
"That's all geared toward helping the community," he said.
The Man From Snowy River Museum, run by volunteers, closed during the month of fire emergency, opened briefly in February, then was shut down by restrictions and only reopened with reduced hours on December 1.
Marita said many of the historic exhibits needed to be roped off or put behind new glass shelving to be COVID-safe.
"We just can't have people touching things that you can't clean," she said.
"Looking at the bright side, it has given us an opportunity to work on some things without trying to work around visitors."
One of those projects is a full-size replica of Jack Riley's hut, being built with traditional methods and hoped to be finished by the next Man From Snowy River festival.
Ros, president of The Man From Snowy River Tourist Association, points to current projects such as historic information windows at the memorial hall and flag scenes to fly in town streets.
Also a member of Corryong's Community Recovery Committee, she will meet up with that group again next month "and go from there".
"It's just showing support for the whole community of Upper Murray and, I suppose, trying to get them back on track," she said.
Marita accepts that Corryong exhibits and history might not be considered necessary to those whose fire memories are still raw.
"I'm a farmer that was burnt out, so I understand completely that other people have other priorities," she said.
"I believe the museum is incredibly important in the role that it plays in the social activities of our volunteers; for many of them the once a week that they come here is often their only structured time where they're out meeting people and talking to people.
"I think a really important part of recovery is to get out, talk to people, see life is normal again, that life is actually full of really good things.
"Getting back to what people are calling 'the new normal' is more a case of seeing that life still is normal.
"It's not a new normal at all, it's just still about connections and talking to people, meeting people, showing people our collection.
"It's really satisfying for them to talk to people that come up to visit that say, 'Oh I used to live here as a kid' or 'My grandparents lived here' or 'Oh, I've never been to this part of the world', and 'Oh my god, I love this'."