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 GEORGIA SMITH is in Tallangatta.
"I've never been so humbled by people's help in my entire life."
While fire didn't blaze through the township of Tallangatta, they certainly weren't immune to the devastation.
The usually calm main street became the heart of the response to the bushfire crisis, as the town transformed into a base of support for their neighbours in the Upper Murray.
No task was too great as residents banded together to work around the clock until the heavy smoke lifted.
Now 12 months on, residents reflect on what happened and how it's changed them, and Tallangatta.
THE MEMORIES STILL REMAIN
When former Tallangatta Bakery employee Claire Martin woke in the early hours of New Year's day, her nightmare began.
Ms Martin and her partner, James Penman, were staying in the Upper Murray when the bushfire landed on their doorstep.
"I remember they said the wind has gone the other way and it's not coming towards Corryong, so we went to sleep," Ms Martin said.
"I remember hearing our phone ring. I got up to look outside and it was just red. The whole entire Mount Mittamatite was full of flames.
"You don't think it would make much sound, but it's like a freight train coming towards you."
After Mr Penman was called out to help with the firefighting effort, the pair found it was them that needed assistance.
"We were leaving his house when an ember lit in his yard," Ms Martin said.
"People who you knew, but didn't know well, came to help and sacrificed their homes for someone else's.
"We stopped it just before it got to the front door."
SPRINGING INTO ACTION
Tallangatta Bakery co-owner Mandy Crispin has an overwhelming appreciation for community spirit and has seen firsthand how the town can rally together in a time of need.
The bakery was called upon to help feed the masses of firefighters and evacuated residents who were seeking refuge in Tallangatta.
It soon resembled something like a community production line as more hands joined the effort.
While the bakery was paid for their tiresome work, many residents volunteered their time for nothing.
"The first night was the night before New Year's Eve when we got the phone call to say that the fire had crossed the river and that DELWP would be in full swing," Mrs Crispin said.
"I came and started work straight away.
"I don't think I went home for two or three days after that, it was just insane.
"On New Year's Eve they evacuated Corryong and there was just people in town everywhere.
"We stayed open from then for maybe three weeks, 24 hours a day.
"New Year's Eve they came in at 3am and said we need 400 egg and bacon rolls. I just said yes to everything.
"838 lunch packs was the biggest day. 1672 rolls and 400 egg and bacon rolls.
"I was calling up friends and Vince (Ciccone) opened up the IGA for us, it was a massive local event.
"Every single local helped everyone out."
IN OTHER NEWS:
HITTING CLOSE TO HOME
While Mrs Crispin had seen the town become a control centre for past bushfires in the region, she admitted there was something different about this one.
Around 80 kilometres separates Tallangatta from bushfire affected Corryong.
"I think this time the biggest thing was we knew our friends in Corryong, family and staff were directly impacted by the line of fire," she said.
"On the first night when people were being evacuated, I didn't realise how close the two communities were until I saw people coming through going 'that's our customer.'
"They were just fleeing."
Mrs Cripsin's 19-year-old daughter, Emily, was in charge of coordinating catering, while her son, Harry, would finish work during the day to help at night alongside their father, Brad, and an abundance of volunteers.
Other bakeries from surrounding towns also pitched in to help Tallangatta, whether it was manning a coffee machine or helping to fill orders.
"We had to have a roster because we had so many people trying to help us," Mrs Crispin said.
"You really did see the best of everyone at that time.
"The first night I had a lady and daughter who didn't know if their house was burnt down.
"They ended up making egg and bacon rolls all night and they had no idea if they had their house to go home to."
DIDN'T ESCAPE UNSCATHED
While the town was a hive of activity that summer, tourism took a hit.
The COVID-19 pandemic which followed only prolonged difficulties for the town and its businesses, as restrictions started to come into play.
"We were busy with firefighters, but not with tourists," Tallangatta IGA owner Vince Ciccone said.
"We lost all of our trade and that's always our peak time of year.
"Even though the firefighters kept us busy, it was still hard."
Mr Ciccone admitted things have started to look up for Tallangatta as another summer rolls around.
"Since Melbourne has opened up we've noticed a lot more caravans coming through here," he said.
After an uphill battle, Mr Ciccone had a brief but powerful message for those wondering how Tallangatta is coping 12 months on.
"We've survived," he said.
"We hope we never experience that again."
THE GIVING SPIRIT NEVER ENDS
Tallangatta's efforts didn't stop when the bushfires finished smoldering.
With their neighbours in the Upper Murray left to pick up the pieces, people in the community were still giving back as the recovery mission began.
But that had to pause when the nation was faced with the uncertainty and chaos of a pandemic.
"I just feel for those guys in Corryong so much," Mrs Crispin said.
"Before COVID hit people were getting up there and getting behind them.
"We had a day where we donated 100 per cent of our sales. I think it was $7500 that day and that was just before COVID.
"We donated it back up into shops into Corryong.
"But when March hit it was just nothing.
"We went from six people behind the counter to two."
Sport, which brings a town like Tallangatta together, also took a hit as a result of COVID, with local competitions cancelled.
Mrs Cripsin admitted those in the town's sporting community were some of the first to throw their hands up to help when times were tough.
"My son plays for Mitta, but the Tallangatta Football Club has my sponsorship my life," she said.
"The coach of the firsts rocked up with his partner and said, 'we'll be here tonight with 20 people, what do you want us to do?'
"Those sporting communities that you sponsor, when something like that happens, every dollar is worth it. They're amazing."
IMPACT STAYS WITH YOU
With the events of the 2019 to 2020 summer and the months that followed in their rear-vision mirror, Tallangatta now looks to the future.
Clearly, that's with a hope history will never repeat.
But if it does and they do find themselves in the thick of it again, they know every resident will be willing to roll up their sleeves and give their all.
"I get quite nervous that something like that could happen again. It can happen anywhere," Mrs Crispin said.
"12 months on we still have people coming in (to the bakery) and saying thank you.
"It was a truly humbling experience to see so many people.
"I've never been so humbled by people's help in my entire life.
"It's an amazing community and you don't know how good you've got it until something happens.
"No one could pronounce Tallangatta before the 2019 bushfires, and now they can."
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.