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.
Making sure people have the chance to connect and a place to go is a priority in Tintaldra.
Most farms around the small township burned when fire swept through on January 4, 2020, but now residents prefer to look forward, not back.
Tania Costello, who chairs the Tintaldra Community Recovery Committee, says a planning day during the year identified fixing up the memorial hall and better fire preparedness as two major goals.
"We had butcher's paper up and we just got people to write their ideas about what they wanted for Tintaldra and how they saw Tintaldra in the future," she said.
But some more social schemes also emerged, like a painting evening and a golf day.
"Just getting people together and getting them to have a bit of time away from work," Tania said.
We had butcher's paper up and we just got people to write their ideas about what they wanted for Tintaldra and how they saw Tintaldra in the future.Tania Costello
Day passes quietly
Like other communities, Tintaldra held nothing formal to mark the anniversary of last summer's fires.
As long-term resident Jo Mackinnon observed, "people haven't really talked about it very much".
"I think everyone's just checking in on each other and making sure that everyone's OK," she said.
"Everyone's very relieved that we've had such a soft summer.
"I think if it had been a really hot week, people's reactions would have been very different."
Farmer Neil Clydsdale said he was "slowly getting it together" in terms of fixing fencing on his properties one year on.
"We've done all the easy stuff, now we're doing the hard stuff," he said.
Friends turned up to help early on "when I didn't know where I was going to start" and groups like BlazeAid, Red Cross and others have donated money, materials and labour.
"For me and I think for many others, it's been very overwhelming the generosity and support that's come out of the community far and wide across the state and interstate," Neil said.
"In some ways it's a bit embarrassing, but it's been incredible the amount of generosity and assistance that we've received."
Fellow farmer Tom Greenhill agreed the depth of the aid offered "makes you swallow a bit".
And in the months that followed, neighbours showed goodwill as they navigated issues like repairing joint fences.
"People have bent over backwards," Tom said.
"No one cares too much as long as it's getting done, you know?"
But the COVID-19 pandemic slowed recovery here as elsewhere.
Neil said the restrictions stopped the usual community activities.
"It's very important we get together and socialise and all that sort of thing for our mental wellbeing and everything and I think some people have suffered from just the lack of that happening," he said.
"It's improving but it's still underlying, there's still a lot of tension and mental anguish ... and I think there's still a way to go for many of us."
IN OTHER NEWS:
After the fires and during the pandemic, Tintaldra Hotel, established 1870, proved as necessary as at any time during its 150 years.
Owner and licensee Darren Jones bought the pub in November 2019, a month before everything flared up, so to speak.
"It's been a hell of a year," he said.
"We rode the bushfires, we rode licensing issues and then we've ridden COVID so at the end of the day ... be grateful for what you still have."
The other residents appreciated the hotel's presence during difficult times.
Jo said even without a liquor licence the business still became a community hub post-fires, providing free meals and a centre to pick up donated goods.
"It was a great place for everyone to go and make sure that everyone was OK," she said.
Neil stressed its appeal didn't arise from drinking alcohol.
"It's just a sense of getting together and chatting away about all sorts of things, some of it, you know, very light hearted and other stuff can be quite serious," he said.
Darren, for his part, was thankful the public kept on turning up.
"I still remember one weekend there where it was really busy, everyone was so supportive they just drank lemon squash," he said.
"I think we poured about 400 schooners of lemon squash one Saturday, it was kind of funny. We have a very, very loyal and local customer base which we love and we see them every week.
"We try to revolve the menu to keep it fresh, make sure people like to come back and try the new things."
When The Border Mail dropped in one regular Thursday afternoon last month, there were a dozen cars parked outside, 32 meals served for lunch and 66 for dinner the previous night. Holiday visitors have only increased patronage, with Tintaldra Hotel serving nearly a thousand meals over the Christmas-New Year week.
"That's triple what we normally do per week, so that was massive," the owner said.
The full impact of the New Year's Eve hard border closure will become clearer as time goes on, but many customers are border bubble residents.
"Pretty happy to still be here ... and we'll do our best to stay there for the community," Darren said.
'Basically two springs'
Other positive aspects have been the cattle prices and a favourable season, which Tom described as "unbelievable".
"We basically had two springs with a couple of weeks of winter in between them," he said.
"You couldn't have wished for better. Everyone's over reminiscing, definitely looking forward."
Jo agreed there was optimism and hope the coronavirus situation would allow for more workshops and on-farm visits this year.
"I think for Tintaldra it's been a great year of community cohesion, we've always been a terrific community," she said.
"Most people have learned how to use Zoom, so that's good, but I tell you there's nothing like face to face contact."
"I think unless you can see people face to face you can't really gauge how they are travelling."
Tania also values the effect of personal, rather than collective contact.
"I get a much better response if you target someone individually," she said.
"Don't just send out a group email, make the phone call or go and drop in on somebody. At least they know you're thinking about them."
She praised the efforts of Tintaldra's local area recovery officer Kaye Nankervis, who helped guide them through grant schemes and applications that could challenge a volunteer committee.
Events like Man From Snowy River festival and the Towong races - and whether they go ahead - will influence 2021 in the Upper Murray.
Last year the Towong Cup provided one of the final crowds before the coronavirus lockdown, attracting 3000 people in early March.
While the present virus cases in Victoria and NSW make planning difficult, Towong Turf Club hopes to celebrate its 150th year with a COVID-safe meeting in less than two months.
In Tintaldra itself, future projects include completing the boat ramp and recreating the fire-affected Avenue of Honour, which received $128,700 of federal funding in November.
Jo, also chair of Upper Murray Incorporated, said her group aimed to increase awareness of the region as a tourist destination.
"We've got a lot to offer as far as nature and the clean outdoors and pristine Murray River and all those sorts of things," she said.
"People aren't going to be able to travel overseas and travel even between states may be limited, so we're going to work pretty hard on getting a good marketing campaign.
"We're a hidden gem, I think, and I certainly think that this year is our opportunity."