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.
Louise Werrett has a simple thought about the year to come.
"Bring it on," she said without hesitation.
A Khancoban resident for 37 years, Louise feels optimistic about her little town after a year disrupted by fire threat and aftermath, COVID restrictions and isolation.
Lesley Barlee, who arrived in 1969, is upbeat as well.
"It's been a hard year but I think the rewarding thing is we kept plugging on," she said.
"The op shop's open now and there's people coming up from Corryong, they can see Dee's getting stuck into the new shop, Ron's got beautiful stuff in his post office."
The women joined Khancoban Post Office's Ron Aarons and cafe owners Dee and Cameron Harmer to talk about their community, both its recent challenges and hopes for the future.
Residents flee flames
Among the fire-affected rural areas, Khancoban is unusual in that it ended up not burning after its residents were ordered to evacuate on January 3.
Ron and his partner Bronwyne had already packed some belongings, realising the two massive fire fronts would merge.
When the evacuation call came they went to stay with friends in Tallangatta.
"I fully expected to come back to nothing because the fires were everywhere," Ron said.
Eventually conditions favoured the town and no properties were lost to everyone's relief, but Louise said simply needing to leave in a hurry took an emotional toll.
"Because it's a lot to stand there at your front door, you've been told to evacuate - 'What do I take? What don't I take? What am I going to come back to?'," she said.
"When you get halfway down the road, 'Oh, why didn't I pick that up? I could have taken that, I'm never going to be able to replace it'.
"It's horrible ... it was like a roller coaster."
With community members scattered around the Border and North East, staying connected and finding out what was going on in Khancoban proved difficult.
Commercial Club Albury became something of a meeting place, with the club offering meal vouchers to the stranded residents.
When people finally returned to their own town, they knew their homes were safe but saw the devastation elsewhere - burnt paddocks, dead stock, buildings lost - as they travelled back.
"Everything's covered in soot and ash, burnt leaves in your yard, scary," Louise said.
In the aftermath of the fires, Khancoban's situation didn't easily fit into the various recovery measures and available funding.
"Help has been offered a lot but because we weren't directly affected by the bushfires, nothing like that seems to apply to us," Dee observed.
But the group knows they were lucky and felt the experience brought people closer together.
"We're a pretty tight knit community, I think, at the best of times," Louise said.
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'Like a ghost town'
Although the town was open after the fires, the whole region remained inaccessible to the general public for weeks. And at the time when normal trading might have resumed, COVID-19 restrictions and cancellations added another layer of isolation.
Lesley thought the worst time came with the border closure in July when at first Khancoban residents couldn't even enter their regular shopping town, Corryong.
"I couldn't even go and see my daughter in Wodonga for three months, one week and two days, I wasn't half counting," she said.
"That was the biggest impact for me, the loneliness and not being able to see close family."
Cameron praised the Defence personnel and police officers staffing the checkpoints, a sight that could be a little confronting for a rural community.
"When it was really prickly, they did a really good job of trying to ease people's minds about the thing," he said.
"You interact with them on a daily basis, you start to see that they're normal as well, they're not just the badge and the QR code."
It's been a hard year but I think the rewarding thing is we kept plugging on. The op shop's open now and there's people coming up from Corryong, they can see Dee's getting stuck into the new shop, Ron's got beautiful stuff in his post office.Lesley Barlee
Emergency service personnel and asbestos contractors generated some much-needed economic activity but life was nowhere near normal.
"It was just like a ghost town" Lesley said. "Ron said one day he made $30."
"That was a good day," Ron countered.
"One day I made $5."
He and Bronwyne bought the post office about three and a half years ago, coming from Melbourne for a tree change.
The increase in parcels thanks to online shopping has kept the business going during the pandemic, with a Christmas-like volume the norm for months.
"I'd expect 100 maximum in a week in a regular year; since July I've been getting maybe 400 a week, so it's quadrupled, really," he said.
Ron said residents had definitely developed COVID-safe habits over the year.
"I mean, walking anywhere you see people automatically hand sanitise and they sort of automatically stand away from each other," he said. "I'm pretty happy that COVID didn't come here or anyone's affected because it would have shut the whole place down."
Lesley agreed Khancoban residents would have been vulnerable to the virus.
"We're an older generation and there's some that aren't particularly well," she said.
"We were happy that we were isolated (on that front)."
Retail boosts morale
Khancoban's population is "sneaking up to 300" Ron thinks, helped by an unexpected property boom during 2020.
"We sold about 19 houses this year, which is massive for Khancoban," Lesley said.
Dee welcomed the ripple effects of new arrivals.
"It's really out of the blue and a bit different, but it's helping, I think, everything in the town, it's great," she said.
The transformation of a prominent but long-empty retail space in the shopping strip is also boosting morale.
Dee and Cameron hope to open their new grocery shop and cafe within a month on the site that used to be the general store but has been closed for several years.
The Harmers had lived in Canberra for 20 years before returning to Dee's home town in 2019 with their four children.
"We came back for a quieter lifestyle ... and then we jumped into it again," Dee laughed.
The couple has hospitality experience but hadn't particularly sought a new business, however ....
"I feel like the community really needed it," Dee said.
"And it's something that we can do. Council's jumped behind us and really helped us out, they want to see this happen."
Fitting out the building began late last year, but the holiday break, busy tradespeople and now the latest border closure have caused some delays.
"I've definitely learnt a little bit of patience, so now I'm rolling with it, 'Oh well, it will happen when it happens'," Dee said.
Ron, like the others, appreciates their efforts to fill a retail void.
"The worst thing when people were visiting was seeing the empty space and asking how long that's been empty, which is not a good thing, but it's not going to be, which is great," he said.
While the Harmers' plans were evolving, the town's existing cafe closed down just before the October long weekend.
"It's bad enough with one empty shop at the front, so the two empty shops we didn't think would be great, we didn't want tourists to be turned off," Dee said.
She and Cameron reopened the business the next morning ("It was a little bit stressful") as a pop-up cafe, aiming just for something simple, like offering coffees and cake. They've been delighted with the public response and the menu has grown accordingly.
New year, new exodus
But as 2021 started holiday makers again left in response to the sudden hard border closure by the VIctorian government.
"We watched the New Year watching a stream of cars going past and the caravan park empty, so it was just like the fires again all over, our little town emptied out," Dee said.
The pub and caravan park lost most of their patronage and the Harmers' pop-up cafe also felt the impact.
"We'd just put in one of our biggest orders because it's obviously the biggest time of year and we had a mass exodus of campers," she said.
"The trading's really down for the little town, again, it was just like last year but without the smoke."
Before that hitch, the residents had seen more visitors, including people keen on fly fishing but not able to travel to New Zealand.
Cameron hoped the trend towards domestic tourism would continue.
"There'll be hopefully some real change in culture around that too," he said.
"Spend your local dollar locally and they can improve it that way."