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 Mount Beauty.
After a year in her new business at Mount Beauty, Lee Docherty couldn't be happier.
Mrs Docherty experienced a full year of what can be described as "normal trade" after she launched her store Gather and Harvest, which stocks a range of homemade candles, soaps, body products and teas.
But the start of year two was far from normal as bushfires surrounded the Alpine region.
"We kind of got to the end of 2019 and thought 'we got through one year and we've kind of got a bit of an idea what this year will bring', but I keep saying it's like running two different businesses," she said.
"I couldn't tell you if five people were going to walk into the store or 50.
"That's how the whole year has kind of panned out, you don't know from one day to the next how anything would pan out."
Mrs Docherty grew up at Gundowring and has experienced many bushfire seasons, but admitted the length of time with this one made it the most difficult.
"We were back home for the Black Saturday fires (in 2009), but it was hard and fast. They were intense and it was horrible, but within a couple of days the bulk of it was over," she said.
"With these ones, it lingered for so long. It was two or three weeks and the smoke was horrendous.
"We were told to leave the first week of January and they cleared the caravan park and told the residents to go.
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"My husband and kids happened to be in Sydney visiting his family because I was running the shop and they stayed up there.
"I took the dog and went to Wodonga to stay with family for four or five days.
"The length of these ones was exhausting and just not knowing if you're going to be at home because we were coming and going a lot."
Mrs Docherty closed her doors for about a week when the fires hit as all of Mount Beauty's visitors were asked to return home.
But instead of sitting on her hands, she used the time to get her business online.
"We'd planned to go online, but the plan was to get that done by March or April. We worked our butts off and that saved us for January," Mrs Docherty said.
"We didn't have a bad February because people came back when the fires were out and we were thinking 'this is going to be a great March'.
"We had the March long weekend into Easter and we thought Easter was going to be fantastic and we were starting to stock up for it, but as we know it all fell apart with COVID."
One hell of a ride
Mrs Docherty rode out the emotions of closing again when the first COVID lockdown began in March.
"It was tears when it first happened and we weren't eligible for most of the government assistance, but we kept changing our tact and changing how we were delivering," she said.
"Everything went very quiet to start with and it was really sad because Easter is one of our biggest weekends.
"We completely closed for the first lockdown and our online sales saved us.
"I've got three kids, two in high school and one in primary school and I would spend the morning homeschooling my son, and, in the afternoons, my teenage kids would come in and we would pack boxes and make candles, soaps and lip balms here to ship them out.
"The second lockdown we opened two days per week and we were also doing home deliveries in the first lockdown for locals.
"It was the locals who got us through and have been amazing and continue to be amazing.
"If you told businesses at the start of the year you would have your doors closed for almost six months, you wouldn't think the whole town would get through that."
In the deep end
Pierre Azemat wanted a change from the corporate life he'd lived for more than 20 years and sought about finding a business opportunity in the Alpine region.
Mr Azemat had been a long-time member of a ski club at Falls Creek and wanted to build an early retirement house at Tawonga, but after holidaying in it for Christmas in 2018, he knew there was no way he could live in the city again.
The opportunity came up to take over Mount Beauty's post office and Mr Azemat added his own touch to it.
Alpine Outfitters not only has the post office, but also stocks a wide range of clothing and adventure equipment to complement the town's ski and mountain bike enthusiasts, as well as the tourists who regularly visit Mount Beauty.
But about six months into his new life, Mr Azemat had to deal with a huge loss of trade as the bushfires cleared everyone out of Mount Beauty.
"The bushfires were hectic, you couldn't see across the road. Those images of that horrendous orange glow everywhere," he said.
"My partner wasn't here at the time and I was sharing photos with her and every now and then they're sort of popping up and it's a terrible feeling to look back on them.
"With the announcement all the visitors had to turn around and go home and I'd been told January was the busiest month of the year for the business, it just disappeared."
Mr Azemat could remain open as the post office was an essential service and he couldn't have asked for better support from the community in an incredibly difficult year for small businesses.
"I've not really been here long enough to have built a trend, but it certainly feels like people are doing a lap of the town first to see what they can get," he said.
"Once they've checked off all their options, they'll then go online or look somewhere else, which is really good.
"We're only a small town and we can't offer everything, but we do have a lot to offer.
"We've totally changed the concept of the post office from what it was to a fairly unique post office.
"As far as I'm concerned, the basics of marketing is understanding who your customers are and what they want.
"In this town, people live here because they're involved in all sorts of extreme outdoor pursuits or they visit here for the same reason.
"Hence why we refer to Mount Beauty as 'the toughest playground'.
"We went down the track of bringing stuff in for people who are involved in those sorts of lifestyle pursuits and it's been really good.
"The end of the year was as good as it was 12 months ago, so here's hoping we don't have another catastrophic bushfire season."
Cut off at the knees
Campbell Ford has had Mount Beauty Hardware and Drapery Store for 14 years and 2020 was no doubt his toughest as his peak trade periods were taken away.
The bushfires sent visitors home in summer and they were unable to return for ski season in the winter at the height on the pandemic in Victoria.
"If you're going to run a business, you'd make more money in a bigger town, but you do it because you love the valley and you want your kids to grow up here," Mr Ford said.
"If you have a business in town, you basically buy yourself a job and some of them you spend more time in than you'd like to."
Timing is everything
It was the first time the town had been evacuated in Mr Ford's time in the business.
"Basically we're a resort town, so if you empty that out in peak season, it hits hard," he said.
"If you dropped into the caravan park, they went from full to empty like that.
"Another hard thing was the redevelopment of the Tawonga Caravan Park which will take over a year.
"Basically we've got two caravan parks in town, so if you close one, 50 per cent of our caravan parks are closed. We're looking forward to that opening again."
Mr Ford said the loss of trade from no Falls Creek ski season was somewhat offset by the amount of people who took on home projects.
"We get two spikes a year. A summer spike and a winter spike and both of those were cut off at the knees," he said.
"When things opened up, it was nice to see Border people coming down.
"Even if they didn't buy anything, just seeing people around lifted the spirits a bit. It was really appreciated."
Mr Ford stocks a huge array of items, but being able to get products in during the COVID lockdown was the biggest challenge.
"We don't have a designated toy shop or an outdoor store, so we cover those bases. If you need it, we might actually have it," he said.
"Our biggest thing is we spend hours and hours trying to get stuff, but if we want to stay in the business it's something we've got to do.
"My biggest competition is not just the store down the road, it's a multinational company called Wesfarmers.
"Lockdown saw a lot more locals shop in town and it was evident how many did rather than go elsewhere."