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 BEAU GREENWAY is in Harrietville.
They say timing is everything.
For Western Australian pearl farmers Ross and Dianne Larard, the purchase of a Harrietville pub just weeks before devastating bushfires and a global pandemic was far from ideal.
"We're quite well established on the other side of the country, but we didn't really expect to come here to fight fires. That wasn't in the brochure so to speak," Mr Larard said.
"We haven't copped it worse than anyone else, everyone is in the same boat really. That's just nature.
"We went up to the north-west (of Western Australia) on quite a big adventure, which was a multi-million dollar investment, and we got cleaned up by two cyclones.
"We were pearl farming then and it sunk two boats and wiped the whole farm out, so we're quite used to it.
"When we got here and I saw the fires I thought 'here we go again, let's hope it doesn't burn the pub down' and it didn't."
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Mr Larard was a keen surfer in the west and developed a love for skiing which saw him venture to Victoria most winters.
His children also caught the bug for skiing and travelled the globe for as much time on the snow as possible, so he thought a move closer to some of Australia's best snowfields would be ideal, and, as a result, purchased Harrietville Hotel Motel.
"We've been coming to Victoria since I met Dianne and if we had our time again we would have moved a long time ago. We just love it here," he said.
"Skiing was fairly expensive and not something you could do every year from WA.
"All the kids are avid skiers and two of them are instructors and chase the snow around the world.
"They're here every season and we come every season, so we thought rather than spending money, we'd take on the pub.
"We thought one of the kids might like to run the pub, but we've gone from one seven-day-a-week business to another.
"We were supposed to be winding down (laughs)."
The Harrietville Hotel Motel doors stayed open throughout the fire period, with Mr Larard's number one priority to ensure his staff were safe.
"We evacuated the staff twice, but I came back myself once I got them out and settled," he said.
"We kept the pub open through it all pretty much, mainly for the emergency services and the hardcore locals who stayed.
"They were appreciative of that because everyone needed a beer of an afternoon."
Mr Larard thought he had seen the worst of 2020, but little did he know COVID-19 would further halt his business and bring an end to the primary reason he made the move - the snow season.
The hotel has 24 motel rooms attached to it and is normally buzzing with avid skiers and snowboarders.
Mr Larard continued to remain open for takeaway service on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights to keep his staff employed and like many businesses, used the shutdown period as a chance to do some renovations.
"We stripped the pool and fully renovated that and we put a street bar out the front which serves inside and out from three windows," he said.
"We built a stone wall out the front with an inbuilt smoker and started work on a pool bar.
"We've got 24 rooms and they're all four or five-berth rooms so when we're full there's quite a crowd in here."
We'll bounce back, quickly
Despite a horror 12 months of business, Mr Larard is confident the recovery will be rapid.
"We've got a lot of friends in business over in Western Australia up and down the coast, some in tourism and some in fishing and farming and they've never seen it so good," he said.
"I think a similar thing will happen here on the eastern seaboard, I don't think international travel will be that popular for a while.
"Even though there won't be any internationals, I think the Australians will pack these resorts like they've never seen.
"Australians have missed three seasons now with this summer coming because they've missed the international one this summer, they missed last summer and they missed ours in winter.
"There will be guys wanting to do double of what they would normally do."
Mr Larard didn't expect to see as much government support as what has been put forward to businesses.
"They've really come out swinging and it's probably put us in debt for a long time, but what else are they going to do," he said.
"We'll all just have to knuckle down and work a bit harder for a while, everyone has pretty much had a year off anyway.
"There's the odd one that capatalised on it and went through the roof, but the ones who have been held up this year are going to come out of the blocks like it's a horse race and are going to want to make up for lost time.
"There's some that didn't make it through and the shops are closed and up for lease again, but there will be a new generation coming through that will fill those spots.
"After a war, it's the best growth period and this is a little bit along those lines."
We were lucky
Brian and Jan Fleming have been in their unique business in Harrietville since 2004 and have experienced several bushfire seasons.
The former owners of the Harrietville General Store created the idea of Granny's Pantry in 1997, which specialises in homemade conserves, chutneys and sauces, also sells giftware and includes a secret garden in the restored 140-year-old cottage, which they moved into in 2004.
Mr and Mrs Fleming were evacuated on January 1 last year and all they could do was hope for the best.
"We had a big meeting in town and the message was 'if you haven't got the ability to defend your property, please leave'," Mr Fleming said.
"We've been pretty lucky we've never had a fire reach us where we are.
"We could defend, but they said they don't want to be saving properties and saving lives, it's one or the other.
"We went down to Melbourne for almost two weeks, but it was just as smoky down there.
"It certainly disrupts things. Apart from making everything secure and locking things down, you're not here to look after things."
Mr Fleming recalled a few burnt leaves landing on his grass, but thankfully the cottage and the business was unscathed.
"It probably got to within five or six kilometres and then it behaved itself and calmed down," he said.
"If there had been a strong wind from the south west, it would have possibly come over the ridge and down.
"Imagine coming back and seeing everything burnt out and black, I couldn't comprehend it. You've lost everything, photographs, memories, your house."
Mr Fleming spent a weekend at King Lake after the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009 to give back to the community and intends to do the same at Mallacoota this year.
COVID-19 certainly hasn't made life any easier for towns torn apart by the fires.
"When we came back, even though we knew from previous fires this wasn't burnt, if there's fires in the area, tourism is gone," he said.
"We closed for nearly six months this year and opened in dribs and drabs because there was a pause and then it got worse again.
"We opened up about mid-year and it shut down fairly quickly after that.
"Bright has a growers market and we only lost one of those. The average market has about 60 stalls and the government allowed food stalls to keep going and 20 to 25 of us had food.
"They were well attended markets because people were stuck at home and wanted to get out."
Mr Fleming said Granny's Pantry was invited by Feathertop Winery to take part in a market at The Timber Yard in Port Melbourne after the fires for 90 stall holders along the Murray River and around the North East.
"The gates opened at 11am and they were queued down the street," he said.
"All the people that would normally come here at Christmas time and love the area couldn't get here.
"It was supposed to go from 11-5pm and we had sold out by 2pm. It was amazing.
"Almost everyone said they were there to support us. Since then we've had website orders regularly."
He's been blown away by the support of the community since COVID restrictions eased and Victoria began to open up again.
"Most people have said they've wanted to come up and support all the shopkeepers and it's been really good," Mr Fleming said.
"A lot of people come in buying jars in sixes to a dozen and using them for hampers.
"They're all saying they'd rather make up a hamper with local products."