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 Tawonga and Tawonga South.
Elene Wood can't fight fires, but she can make cakes.
The Tawonga cake decorator lost several bookings as the bushfires took hold around the Alpine region 12 months ago and weddings were soon to be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mrs Wood has been a long-time volunteer at the Australian Open as a driver for the world's best tennis players and was on her way down to Melbourne for the tournament as the fires neared Tawonga.
"It was a bit scary not being close by and being helpless," she said.
"My boss asked if I wanted to go home, but I said 'what's the point, I wouldn't be able to get back and I probably wouldn't be allowed in'.
"I was better off down there and (my husband) David came down to be with me as well because he can't fight fires.
"We used to fight them before, stay and defend and get up on the ladders on the roof, but neither of us can do that now."
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Mrs Wood returned from Melbourne with her home and cake decorating studio unaffected by the disaster and had three weddings to make cakes for.
She'd already started to prepare them when it was announced the nation would enter lockdown in March in a bid to stop the spread of the virus.
But Mrs Wood made sure it didn't go to waste.
"I had all these perishables and you can't freeze things like cream or butter and I didn't know what I was going to do with it all," she said.
"I decided to make cupcakes and I gave them to all the frontline workers and they were delighted.
"People like the staff in the supermarket, the pharmacy, the real estate, the nursing home and the petrol stations who stayed open for the emergency services were just so rapt to receive it.
"It really made their day and it made me feel good that I could give something back.
"I dropped some off to the ambulance drivers and someone was running after me and had just got back from a big job and just wanted to say thank you.
"They were all working here trying to save the town while I was in Melbourne.
"I can't fight fires, but I can bake cakes and you need energy. A cuppa and a cake at the end of the day makes a world of difference."
Mrs Wood returned a full deposit to all of her customers and was thrilled they've all come back to have their cakes made for their wedding days this year.
As bookings started to slow, Mrs Wood used it as an opportunity to fine-tune her decorating skills.
"I booked myself all of these international courses and I've come a long way since doing that," she said.
"I was still making some cakes, the smallest wedding cake I've ever made was one for three people because of COVID.
"I got invited to make a wedding cake for a mock wedding as part of the return to Falls Creek.
"I was given the brief of the colours but I didn't know what sort of flowers I had until the very last minute.
"I've had birthday cakes for three or four people and I've been happy to do that.
"I'm pretty easy-going and nothing is too big or too small. I like doing the things that are a little bit different."
However, Mrs Wood was due to travel to the US for an international course as part of the Australian Cake Decorating Network, which unfortunately had to be cancelled.
A lot to process
Pipere Stonebridge and husband Ian have owned Tawonga Motors for 10 years and faced challenges they had never seen before in the past 12 months.
Mrs Stonebridge not only had to worry about the impact a devastating fire could have on her business, but also her family home at nearby Kancoona.
"There has been other fires around, but these would have been the closest ones to us," she said.
"We live down in Kancoona and they had the fires from Myrtleford and we live on a valley that goes the other way and when the wind comes it heads that way.
"We had a few times where we were on leave warnings for home as well.
"When you've been told to leave from home, you're not going to come to work where you're on the edge of it as well.
"That was probably the most serious thing we've been through with the fires and just being able to manage with the smoke we had and all those things."
Tawonga Motors experienced a downturn in trade because no-one wanted to have their car stuck at the garage in case they were required to evacuate.
"We had to rotate our staff and things like that during that time," Mrs Stonebridge said.
"I guess finding our little niche was good for us to be able to keep going.
"We ended up getting cars in and closing the doors down (due to the smoke) because obviously we have three doors open during the day."
Roll with the punches
Mrs Stonebridge said the business then had to make more adjustments as COVID restrictions came into play.
"It was funny at the start of the year because we were putting masks on for the smoke and by the end of the year you're having to wear them for this invisible thing in the air," she said.
"We were pretty good at adapting.
"It's been an interesting year, but thankfully we've been fairly lucky out here.
"The fires at the start of the year had more of an impact than COVID because we've been pretty well sheltered from a lot of it and protected by Melbourne being kept away.
"Cancelling the ski season was a real weight off our shoulders.
"There's only a couple of schools and there's only one supermarket, so if something like that was to get into our community, it would basically spread like wildfire.
"With people coming up, it becomes quite a bustling place when it comes to ski season, so the thought of having all these people from Melbourne coming through our town was a bit worrying.
"We have a little hospital, but it doesn't really cater for much and a medical centre.
"I think it was a lot for people to get their heads around out here, especially a lot of the people being from the country and have only lived here.
"None of us have ever been through something like this before, so it was all kind of learning and adapting as we went along."
Like many small business in the Alpine region, it was the support from the local community which kept Tawonga Motors afloat.
"We are really lucky and our customers are really great. I think having been here for so long, a lot of our customers have grown with us and our family," Ms Stonebridge said.
"They know we need support and they need us as well, so it's a mutually beneficial relationship for us and our customers.
"I feel positive if everyone does their bit and is conscious of what we need to be doing, we can come out the other side and maybe reset.
"I watch the news every evening because we have an international family. My husband (Ian) is English and his parents live in Spain, so seeing what they're going through it feels like they're going to be struggling forever.
"One thing I probably have learned from all this is how fragile we really are and the risks that are posed by things we can't necessarily see."
Not doom and gloom
Tawonga South Butchery owner Gavin Thurkettle took a very philosophical approach to the year.
Despite a big loss in winter trade with the cancellation of the ski season at Falls Creek, Mr Thurkettle wasn't looking for excuses.
"We've had a lot of good years as well. It is what it is," he said.
"We're happy we've still kept trading in some sort of capacity. It wasn't at full capacity, but we kept turning things over.
"It's kind of been dialled back a bit to the way it used to be, so hopefully some of that will stay.
"Say if you're up 60 per cent, if you can keep 20 per cent on top of what you already had it's alright for the future. You realise what you do and don't need."
Mr Thurkettle's business returned to a more normal level with more tourists back in town after the easing of COVID restrictions, but he didn't allow himself to be consumed by everything going on around him.
"I've got my health, it's not worth worrying about," he said.
"You're going to have your tough times here and there, you've just got to deal with it.
"I always say when some people come in, I'd rather be here than on the shores of Dunkirk in 1942. I'm not getting shot at here.
"Some people just want to get involved in the politics of it all and everyone is entitled to an opinion."