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.
Three months after the Upper Murray fires, Rowan Surtees received his CFA magazine in the mail.
Reading about one brigade that saved "two houses, a machinery shed full of tractors, a hay shed ... two bulls and a number of cows", Rowan made a comment to his wife.
"I said to Bev, 'That's our place, I bet'," Rowan said.
"There were stories about the fires last year, and they were talking about the Baranduda brigade protecting houses at Nariel Valley."
The cattle farmer didn't know the names of the firies who were stationed outside of his late father's house early on December 31, as he was on the Nariel tanker elsewhere.
"We got our first call-out in the afternoon. We went to Walwa; we got down there before the fire had come across," Rowan said.
"I don't know how many New South guys were over the river, it was like a big moving screen unfolding.
"We could see them running around trying to put spot fires out and we were parked at this house.
"The main fire was only a couple hundred metres up from us when it went across the river.
"You had that daunting feeling of 'This isn't going to be good'."
After protecting properties at Walwa, the Nariel Valley tanker moved to Cudgewa.
"When we came up the Cudgewa Valley and saw all the back of the bluff on fire, we thought, 'Nobody out there is going to survive that' ... but they did," Rowan said.
"I still remember being at Cudgewa and hearing this little dozer clunking up the asphalt.
"It was [football club president] Greg Hillier, trying to put fire breaks around everyone.
"It was a bit ironic, because their footy ground was their safe area, and you could hear on the radio at one stage 'Can anyone get down to the footy oval and protect the club rooms?'
"We defended as much in Cudgewa as we could.
"Then I heard it was going up Nariel Valley and I said to the captain, 'I think it's time to get home'."
Bev Surtees was at their Benambra-Corryong Road home, a beacon of light in the valley thanks to a wired-in generator.
"The neighbour came down for a cuppa, that was about midnight," Bev said.
"I thought, 'It can't come from Walwa overnight, we'll deal with it tomorrow'."
But the monster of a fire did make its way to Nariel Valley - thankfully, Rowan was at the home when it set alight the hills barely 500 metres away.
"The diesel generator was going, and it's pretty loud, but when it was crowning over the bush we could hear the roar of it over the generator," he said.
"It was certainly making its own behaviour.
"It's snapshots in your mind - little spot-fires starting in perfect rings of fire and taking off."
The smoke was so thick that just next door, at the Surtees' other property, members of the Baranduda brigade couldn't make out their tanker.
"The truck was 20 metres away and we couldn't even see the red and blue flashing lights," Gary Wattie said.
"We were trying to stop the truck from catching on fire.
"One of our district managers used to say 'Do what you can with what you got', and that's what we did."
Matt Martin, who was crew leader for their 21-hour-shift, had received direction to do asset protection at the Nariel Folk Festival when they went to the Surtees' property.
"At one point I knew we didn't have enough gear to protect what we had and I was in contact with our crews, and they said everyone else was at a house, in the same situation," he said.
Gary, Matt and their fellow crew members, Ian Shipp and Pat Barnes, protected the home that held five generations of farming families.
The Surtees only realised the full extent of what was lost and saved on January 4.
Smoke had cleared, in line with a predicted wind change and the declaration of a state of disaster.
"It was the first day you could tell everything was black; before that, you couldn't see the hills or anything else," Bev said.
"We were all just sitting out on the verandah looking at it.
"Then you see the smoke coil."
Two people who had gathered at the Surtees' place during the New Year's Eve emergency lost their home in the second flare-up that burned Towong and surrounds.
"They actually went to town after here, but then they weren't allowed to go back, and three days later, that's when their house burnt," Bev said.
"They just had their car and their cats."
Rowan said his wife of 27 years was a "calming influence" for the many people who came to their place, but the 55-year-old also held a level head in that second firefight.
"We reverted back to the CFA of old where we were running our own show, with our utes and radios; on the bad Saturday, they were pulling the tankers away from the valleys to Corryong," he said.
"My nephew came up with me, on the second burst, and we got out in the paddock and were trying to keep it from the captain's house.
"We were sitting there, not moving, and we couldn't go back where we came because the fire was too hot.
"He [my nephew] said 'Let's move!', and I said 'No, you don't move until you can see'.
"The vehicle was getting fairly hot, but eventually the smoke cleared, and we slowly worked our way out.
"I said you have to keep calm, if we roared off we would have gone down a rut and tipped over."
Having been in the CFA since he was a teenager, Rowan was prepared for the 2019-2020 fire season and it paid off.
But he also believes the fire spared their place in a way it didn't others.
"We lost the hay sheds, but there were only three cattle we didn't find. Neighbours lost quite a lot, and I know Cudgewa Valley lost heaps," Rowan said.
"On a scale of bad to terrible, we were bad.
"Within a month, we'd finished fencing, and we got the government grants, which we were thankful for.
"For anybody who's going to rebuild their house, it's hard work."
Having their machinery saved by the Baranduda brigade was a big help, which Rowan explained to Gary when he called him in April.
"Rowan said it made the clean-up so much easier," Gary said.
"He called about half an hour after I'd read the article, and said 'I think you saved our property'.
"We had a chat about it, and I described the tree at the property, it was a monster.
"He said that was theirs, that tree was planted in the 1930s. It was a shame we couldn't save it, but we were glad to hear that they had very few stock losses.
"I apologised for cutting his fences so many times."
There were many apologies from the firies that responded to the Upper Murray disaster - for what they couldn't do.
Gary said the 'thanks' they received didn't sit well, coming from such resilient and hard-working locals.
"The lady at the Upper Murray pizza place, she opened up the shop and just said, 'Go for it, take what you want'," he said.
"They did so much.
"There were some ridiculous saves by people, where the fire burnt right up to the house and the paint was blistered but it stayed standing."
Matt remembers being blown away by the dogged determination of the Biggara brigade.
"They were going 100 miles an hour through paddocks and bouncing through culverts - we'd be heading back and there's the Biggara tanker going flat out again," he said.
"For me, the hardest thing is leaving the locals behind.
"Those guys have got to knock off, go home, and go back to burnt property. They live it."
The trauma from those events has prompted some to "pull up the drawbridge", Rowan said.
"People are damaged, that's for sure," he said.
"There were four of us on our truck and one night we all got in the vehicle, before COVID locked us down, and we went for a drive and went to Jingellic pub.
"I think it probably came from the captain's wife; she was trying to get us together because we were all pretty shattered."
A barbecue for men in the valley took place before the pandemic hit, but an event for the women was impacted.
"They were very much in the thick of it too," Rowan said.
IN OTHER NEWS:
"If we hadn't have had COVID, I'm pretty sure it would have been a lot better."
There are plans for more community gatherings in 2021.
It will be crucial for the community to speak to the human and material losses and share in their grief.
That's why, despite how confronting the events were, Bev compiled stories of the Baranduda brigade's save and others in a scrapbook.
One day, they will be easier to read.