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. Today VIVIENNE JONES is in Walwa.
For 12 days Walwa was under attack.
For 12 long, tiring, hot days, the community, CFA, farmers on the back of utes, nurses, volunteers and everyone in between, fought to save their town.
And they did.
The small rural town, on the Victorian side of the river, had many losses, but it was its strength as a community, a team, that saved the township.
Those 12 days are still very raw for a lot of people, but more than 12 months on, their fighting spirit still shines through.
The constant threat
CFA captain David Hanna, believes if it wasn't for the extra CFA support crews and trucks, the town would have been wiped out.
"The fire jumped the river on the 30th then it ran across the top of the hill here and it was on the 31st that the wind changed from a northerly to a westerly and we had a 60-kilometre fire front coming right for us," he said.
"We fought this fire around Walwa for 12 days.
"The difficulty was with the very limited number of firefighters we had in our brigade, because everyone was looking after their own patch.
"The CFA was outstanding, we had crews from all over the state - the strike teams - and they were here day after day.
"The biggest day was the Saturday and we had an extra 76 firefighters from right across Victoria and 19 extra vehicles.
"We just didn't know what was happening out there, it wasn't until days later that we found out about the losses.
"If it wasn't for all the help, we would have lost Walwa."
A safe haven
Sandi Grieve quickly realised there were people stranded in town, looking for somewhere safe and cool to go.
The Walwa Bush Nursing Centre became that place.
"We had the only generator so we had the only fridges, and we had the only coolers," the chief executive said.
"Lets not forget it was 46 degrees for weeks at a time and didn't get below 36 some nights.
"A lot of people who evacuated, because of the road blocks and the fire, they couldn't get home so they were stuck in town.
"It became very obvious, very quickly that no one was feeding the firies and the road blocks stopped our guys getting across to Jingellic.
"We did 600 meals in that period."
Ms Grieve, along with a handful of volunteers, ran the centre as a relief centre, where people could get medical treatment, a hot meal, a relief from the heat in the air conditioning and somewhere to debrief.
"Communication was a huge thing," she said.
"There was no way to talk to people that weren't right in front of you."
Ms Grieve said while the community is used to fires, no one could prepare them for the scale of the 2019-20 bushfires.
"We have had fires and disasters here before but usually it is only in one valley and the community just surrounds them and supports them, whereas with this we didn't know anyone that wasn't fire affected, that hadn't been burnt," she said. "We ended up with the 'I lost my house camp' and the 'I didn't lose my house camp'. It was interesting to watch the divide and people react the way they thought they should react to their own losses.
"When I think everyone's loss, whether that be their family home, their cattle, their machinery shed or their beloved rose garden, is very much a hard thing to swallow.
"Someone said to me very early on - 'the trauma of fire isn't what actually happened, it was what you thought was going to happen'.
"And almost everyone thought they were going to lose their house, lose their husband or their lives.
"That is a very traumatic thing."
A focus on moving forward
The Walwa recovery committee, which is chaired by Janice Newnham, has been meeting regularly for 12 months and while there are many issues members look at, one thing remains - moving forward.
"There is a lot of people still struggling and I think that is where we need to focus our attention as a committee," Mrs Newnham said.
"I think Australia Day might be a time for us as a community to come together and maybe commemorate the fires.
"Because of COVID we haven't really had that get together and some people haven't been able to move on.
"Our Australia Day is normally a big day for our community so I think maybe then we can do something.
"Whatever that may be."
As a fellow committee member Mr Hanna said while some people may still hold some anger towards the fires, they have a focus on being better prepared for the next event. "There has been an enormous amount of help out there," he said. "Particularly from Blaze Aid, you know I can't speak highly of them, they have been fantastic.
"They have helped an enormous amount of people, not just with the building of fences but psychologically, helping them out.
"The Freemasons are coming in and offering help, the Sikh community have been offering help up here, Lions, Rotary - you shouldn't start naming people because you leave some out.
"COVID has made it very hard. We had the fires and we were just trying to get back on our feet and then we were hit with the COVID restrictions.
"It has affected the community get together, a lot of people need psychological support as well as physical help.
"My thought is, it is time to move on and I don't want to revisit it all.
"I think we have to move on, learn from the mistakes and act positively.
"A big part of the recovery committee, is how to be better prepared for the next disaster.
"None of us would have predicted to the extent of the last one, but from a recovery point of view it is a high priority to be more prepared and helping people along the way of course."
Getting on with it
Even in the face of losing two homes, two sheds and hectares on hectares of property, the Newnhams are moving on.
Mrs Newnham and her husband Robert said while there are still small things which trigger their memories of the fires, they haven't really had time to dwell.
And that is how they like it.
"His family home went, so his mum is really upset she has had treasures in the house and they are all gone now," Mrs Newham said.
"It is heartbreaking really.
"All the kids, who are all well and truly grown now, they left some stuff from their childhood in the house and its all gone.
"You still think of things and wonder where they are and then remember that everything was burnt."
Luckily they have a house on another property they managed to save and have been living in for the past 12 months.
"We couldn't get out to the other properties," Mr Newnham said.
"We haven had much time to dwell on it because we have had so much work to do rebuilding everything.
"We are in desperate need of a holiday though.
"From fires, to COVID and everything else last year, we have been saying we can't wait until 2021 since June."
It was New Year's Eve when the Newnhams first faced the flames.
"My son had the slip on on the back of the ute and he came to fill up because he was absolutely dead empty and the flames were literally coming like a wall at the house.
"I just said 'nope' and we got in the car, loaded the dogs and got out.
"The boys were on the back of trucks for about two weeks.
"One of our sons is a member of the CFA but the other isn't but he still pulled on the yellows and got on the back of a truck.
"The fire came right up to the back door step of the house. The other day my Vic Emergency app beeped at me, it was a nasty day, and it kind of brought back a bit for me."
For Mr Hanna, who lost 400 hectares of paddocks and 19 head of cattle, realising how lucky they are has been something to push him forward.
"There is a lot of positives - we had one of the best seasons we have had in recent years," he said.
"The grass has grown and cattle prices are at an all time high but in saying that there are a few people who now can't afford to buy back in.
"We lost a lot of fencing but through the support of my family we have got on top of it.
"We have been able to move on. There are people who haven't been able to to the extent of others.
"It is not easy to identify those people, farmers are very proud people. There are still people that haven't gotten back on their feet and as a committee we are very much trying to focus on them."