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.
As dangerous fires burned less than 10 kilometres away from Whorouly in January 2020 and firefighters worked to keep them away from nearby townships, there was one important thing the pub could do - stay open for a beer.
Whorouly Hotel owner Tony Buchan and his partner had only taken over running the pub in mid-2019, but it quickly became a central point of the community during the emergency 12 months ago.
The Abbeyard fire would grow to over 100,000 hectares in size and pose a serious threat to communities.
Pub a community hub
On January 9 last year, emergency services warned residents, including those in Whorouly and Carboor, that the fire was out of control and heading in their direction.
They were warned that leaving now may have been the safest option, before conditions became too dangerous.
"We stayed for our friends who were out there fighting the fires," Mr Buchan said.
"We stayed open quite late and we had the guys come in and have a beer.
"They came in with black and soot on their faces.
"At 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning they'd call past and tell us their stories and have a bit of a break ... It was very much a community hub.
"People could come in and tell their stories, it was amazing.
"Some of the guys who came in, they were big, strong guys and they were saying 'I've never seen anything like it' - they said it was scary."
Another bonus of having the firefighters come by the pub late at night is that they could find out exactly what was happening with the blaze and how much of a threat it posed.
At 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning (firefighters) would call past and tell us their stories and have a bit of a break ... It was very much a community hub.Whorouly publican Tony Buchan
Thankfully no Whorouly properties were under threat, but that did not not make it any less scary at the time.
"There's so much more to burn up there, it's only just scratched the surface. At any time it could come back, there's no doubt," Mr Buchan said.
Then came COVID-19
But he said a lot of the fears from the fires 12 months ago have been overshadowed by people having to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
The new Whorouly Hotel owners had only taken over the business about six months before the bushfires - their first time working in hospitality.
"We finally started to get it right and the fires came, then we got over the fires and we had about three weeks before COVID kicked in," Mr Buchan said.
"This is our first summer as a normal pub - it's a major difference, it's amazing. The community was amazing during COVID.
"It's just my partner and I, we did takeaway meals six days a week.
"They utilised the service we were providing and we got a few government grants to keep us afloat, or else we wouldn't have been here."
After some good publicity in Melbourne and the desire for city people to get to the regions after fires and lockdown, he said business has "been going gangbusters ever since".
"Everybody was amazing, they were just spending money where they could. We had people coming in even just wanting to give us money," he said.
'A big red wall'
In nearby Carboor, the bushfire came within metres of destroying two properties and was within a kilometre of the township.
It was only because of the work of 125 firefighters, battling the fire during the night, that the Carboor homes narrowly managed to be saved.
Carboor resident and Wangaratta councillor Harry Bussell was one of the volunteers with a hose in the path of the fire, describing it at the time as "a big red wall" coming towards his property.
His first move was to help evacuate his 90-year-old mother, who lived alone nearby.
She was taken to Wangaratta by his wife, while Cr Bussell stayed and sat behind the CFA trucks in case sparks flew over firefighters and started any more spot fires.
IN OTHER NEWS:
The blaze burnt through 150 hectares in 70km/h winds before being contained, with dozers and graders putting in primary and secondary control lines.
Cr Bussell said there had never been a fire that big in the years his family had been settled in the Carboor area since just before 1900.
A year on, the memories have stayed with him and others in the community.
He described the fire brigade as the type that likes to "get in, get on with it and go home"
"When the flames are coming over the hill, you know that someone is going to be there, side-by-side. You don't see too many people in this part of the world run from a fire," Cr Bussell said.
"Certainly a big campaign like January last year has lifted all our skills a lot, so we're a lot happier - we know what sort of fire we're going to see next time.
"Our skills and our expertise are a lot better than they were 12 months ago."
Still wary of danger
Cr Bussell spoke to The Border Mail on a hot day that was pushing 40 degrees and was making sure that the tyres on his Land Cruiser were pumped up and the fire unit was filled with water.
The community is still wary of fire danger and even though they know this year's fire season will not be as bad, some were still reluctant to go on holidays in January. "They've been reassured by others that 'it's OK, we can cope'. If a fire turns up, it won't be a big one, it will only be a small one, and we can cope," Cr Bussell said.
"It's good that everybody is a lot more attuned to the dangers of fire, but we're in a vastly different space to last year. Most people are pretty relaxed about that."
He said farmers were grateful for good rainfall in 2020 after the fires, and after a period of drought.
"That lifts people's spirits in this sector, but we haven't forgotten," he said.
"I think most people have moved on alright.
"There's a little bit of fencing in this area to be done.
"The landscape you can still see, although it's green and is starting to recover, it's still very much had a bushfire through it 12 months ago."
Roads took an 'absolute flogging'
The pine plantation at Carboor that was hit by the bushfires is still harvesting the timber 12 months later.
Cr Bussell said this was good news, but the work has taken a toll on the region's roads.
"Our roads here have taken an absolute flogging, all the rain over the long winter when it was wet, with the 140,000 tonnes of timber that's come out through Carboor. It's put a lot of strain on our local roads here, which is at council's expense," he said.
"I'd like to see more funding for the last piece of the sealed road in the Carboor-Lake Buffalo Road. It's really taken a pounding with all this extra timber that's been carted out of here.
"The locals have done their bit and I think it's either up to the pine company or the government to show a bit of respect and do some more work here on the road.
"The road here in Carboor Upper, the Lake Buffalo Road, if it was closer to town, it wouldn't be tolerated - it's just horrible."
Masks in early 2020
The smoke that blanketed much of the region 12 months ago was particularly bad in the Whorouly area.
So much so, that masks were being worn in the town well before it became common practice during the pandemic.
Whorouly cafe owner Jennifer Garrett told The Border Mail at the time that she opted to wear a mask on her daily mail run and had masks available for locals who require them.
"Some of the elderly have already evacuated, but smoke is the biggest problem," she said.
The region's air quality index of PM10 particles, which can be found in dust and smoke, had been at "hazardous" levels of over 200 since late-December.
Whorouly and Carboor were not at locations that were measured, but, further into January, Wangaratta was at one stage the third worst city in the world for air quality, with levels closer to the 1000 mark.