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.
"There are a lot of people in this town that got lucky."
That is the feeling of some Myrtleford residents who still remember the horrors of Black Saturday and recognised the signs of another potentially tragic bushfire event 12 months ago.
It was the first week of January, as fires were burning in the Alpine area, that authorities issued a watch and act for Myrtleford.
While the fires never ended up going through the town, that could have been different with one change of wind.
'Hyper-alert' about bushfires on hot days
Myrtleford Cycle Centre owner Steve Connor was one who decided to not take any chances.
"I got on my bike to see if it was real and I got far enough to see the glow and said 'this is real'," he said.
"I lived through Black Saturday, that came through here as well.
"I am hyper-alert on hot, sunny days.
"I have the Vic Emergency app and it's programmed to yell at me if anything happens.
"At three in the morning on one of the worst days, it kicked off and we got out.
"We've got a kid, we've got insurance - we left."
Following the family's fire plan, his wife and child went to stay with family in Melbourne and he returned to Myrtleford, but not for long.
Seeing ash start falling from the sky made the whole situation a lot more real.
"At 3.30 in the morning on that Sunday night, they pushed the watch and act out, which woke me up," Mr Connor said.
"I looked outside and there was thick smoke, you couldn't see across the paddock.
"Even if I stayed up, I wouldn't know until the embers started falling.
"All my neighbours were gone, there were no eyes so I thought 'there's no point in being here'.
"I threw the cat in the car and I drove back to Wang."
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The smoke was so thick, it took him almost two hours to complete the trip.
"The visibility was so bad that I was doing 20-30km/h in some parts of the forest where the smoke was sitting," Mr Connor said.
"The worst thing that can happen is that I hit a roo in the middle of that, so I was really careful."
He was able to return home a couple of days later after the danger had passed, but stands by his careful approach to the fire risk.
"You don't know what is going to happen," he said.
"When they tell you to leave, yes, they're being super cautious, but they don't tell you to leave when it's impossible for you to go.
"So if they tell you 'you really should go now' and you stay, and you don't get burnt, that didn't make you right - that made you lucky.
"There are a lot of people in this town that got lucky."
If they tell you 'you really should go now' and you stay, and you don't get burnt, that didn't make you right - that made you lucky.Myrtleford business owner Steve Connor
Early fire warnings were important
Darren Skelton of the Ovens Incident Control Centre had the same message for Myrtleford residents in January, when they were annoyed at the watch and act warning being issued for their town.
"Our messaging is designed to get it to you as soon as possible, we're not going to wait until the embers start landing in your front lawn," he said.
"We don't want to wait until it's at your door we want to give you as much time as possible to leave knowing there's a whole range of things you have to do."
Residents of nearby towns of Buffalo Creek, Merriang and Merriang South were evacuated in early January 2020, with many making their way to Myrtleford.
A relief centre was then opened at the Myrtleford Senior Citizens Centre.
Memories of Black Saturday remain
It was living in Myrtleford during the 2009 Black Saturday fires that has left Mr Connor scared of what devastation bushfires could cause.
A Canadian native, he had not been in Myrtleford very long and did not own a car at the time.
Other neighbours had already made their decisions to stay or leave and it was too late was his family.
"I wasn't really nervous until the sun went down and three quarters of the sky lit up," he said.
"I was scared, but I realised this year because now I know more, I wasn't scared enough."
Mr Connor disagrees when he hears people say of Myrtleford that "a town this size has never burned".
"There's never been fires like this before either," he said.
"We're prepared to defend.
"We could end up in that situation again where it's too late to go or it's more dangerous.
"Every time this happens, there's that tragic scene of a half a dozen cars piled into each other on the highway and nobody made it."
Business has bounced back after 2020
The positive for Mr Connor is that his business not only survived during the bushfires and coronavirus pandemic, but he is so busy, he cannot get everyone bicycles.
Many from out of town made the specific effort to visit Myrtleford Cycle Centre.
"That was their stated goal, to come to this little town and spend some money. If you want to see the best in humanity, look for the worst circumstances," Mr Connor said.
He was also grateful for the federal and state government business grants and JobKeeper payments.
"I don't know anyone in town who failed," he said.
"We got enough to sustain ourselves until things got better. It was the right thing, it was the right amount, it was a relatively painless process.
"Our customers are pretty good - as soon as things settled down, they made a point of coming back."
With a settled family and supported business, the bushfire risk will not change Myrtleford being home for Mr Connor.
"This is where my life is, I just have to suck it up and deal with it," he said.
The wider attitude towards bushfire danger in Myrtleford continues to range from indifferent to terrified.
"It's how human beings' brains work - if something hasn't happened to you, you will always assess the risk as lower than it actually is," Mr Connor said.
"Probably because I was so spooked by Black Saturday and now with this one, I'm probably over-assessing the risk."
Fire risk: It is what it is
The ladies who volunteer at Myrtleford Hospital and Community Op Shop have also seen their share of fire danger days.
Volunteer Robyn Burne told The Border Mail that the shop was closed during the worst of the bushfires 12 months ago.
She chose to stay in town.
"We have got hills around us, but we're not hemmed in like up Bright, Harrietville and Corryong," she said.
"We were sort of lucky.
"We had lots of smoke and some people did evacuate."
The attitude of Ms Burne was to keep an eye on the fire warnings and be sensible.
"On the whole, I'm not overly worried. I think I've got the attitude 'it is what it is'," she said.
"You have to know the firies can't be everywhere."
The op shop was originally opened to raise money for Myrtleford hospital, but now also donates funds to community organisations - including the Country Fire Authority.
Volunteer Cynthia Geier said the shop had to open and close many times during 2020 because of bushfires and the coronavirus pandemic, but business is now going well again.
She said even though signs pointed to another summer of fire danger, she - like many others - had the attitude that "you just get on with it, don't you?".
"The town was really alright, we were very fortunate here," she said.
Despite the memory of very serious fires 12 months ago, firefighters were called in the region during very hot days just last week.
"We saw campfires lit in places along the Murray River, near Myrtleford and Apollo Bay on a day of very hot and windy conditions. There were also a number of backyard bonfires in residential areas, which is really disappointing on such a hot day," CFA chief officer Jason Heffernan said.