It doesn't matter that there's a nice shop or hotel here, when people pull up you see them staring into the hills and going, 'how good is this."- Mitta General Store owner Richard Hay
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 Mitta.
If you ask Mitta residents what it is that draws people to the town year after year, they'll have a list of reasons ready for you.
From camping to fishing, kicking back for a drink at the pub, or even just enjoying a day by the creek, you can see why Mitta comes alive with tourists when the weather warms up.
But the combination of last summer's bushfires and the following COVID-19 pandemic forced the town into stillness.
Mitta pub co-manager Chris O'Connor and general store owner Richard Hay reflect on the year that was and how the hardships changed the town and its businesses, for better and for worse.
"Small towns like this stick together."
SUMMER LIKE NO OTHER
As the final days of 2019 drew to a close, the biggest concern for Mitta residents was a string of "what ifs".
What if the bushfires that had settled into the Upper Murray were to come blazing through, and what if it was a repeat of the fires of 2003.
New Year's Eve is one the biggest nights on the calendar for the Mitta pub, but not that time.
"That was the hardest part, not knowing what we were up against," Mr O'Connor said.
"Before official notification, the area, which is very heavy with tourism at that time of the year, evacuated.
"I had to go into town on the day of New Year's Eve to get more supplies and on the way back there was a continuous stream of cars and caravans.
"We initially had just over 200 people booked for New Year's Eve and we dropped to 30 people for the night.
"The difficulty up here is that it's a lock-in area.
"There's roads in and out but people just weren't sure, so they got out as quickly as they could."
Mr O'Connor and his partner, Heather Smith, have been running the lively pub for the last four years.
Having not experienced the town's previous bushfire scares, the pair decided to gauge long-time residents' responses to see if there was cause for concern.
"They weren't packing, so we didn't panic," Mr O'Connor said.
"We had great communication with local fire people."
Mr Hay had also started to prepare for the worst as he thought back to past experiences.
"When you've been near a fire, it's frightening and it travels quick," he said.
"When the wind's going you won't stop it."
IN OTHER NEWS:
He admitted while the town was deserted, they were still the lucky ones.
"Within half a day we went from 500 people in town to none tourist wise," Mr Hay said.
"Apart from losing business we were unaffected here, we were pretty lucky."
FACING THE NEXT CHALLENGE
January turned out to just be round one of challenges for Mitta as their next opponent, the coronavirus, stepped into the ring.
Mr O'Connor was forced to shut the pub's doors to cope with the impact.
"The loss of trade and business affected us for the whole year," he said.
"We dropped approximately 95 per cent of our trade for the busiest time of the year during the bushfires.
"We started operating for the community who was still here and for police on the road blocks.
"By mid-January we were back into reasonable operation for a month and a half and then COVID hit."
The general store was able to remain open, with Mr Hay finding a silver lining among all of the setbacks.
"For us at the shop it was hard, but we managed to get through," he said.
"I've been renovating the store since January, so it was a good chance for me to get all but one room finished.
"I had the extra time to do it because we didn't have the volume of tourists.
"We started to get people into the caravan park and campsites started filling up.
"I believe Mitta is probably the tourism capital of the Towong Shire, not because of what we've built here, but the surrounding bush and scenery.
"It doesn't matter that there's a nice shop or hotel here, when people pull up you see them staring into the hills and going, 'how good is this."
Mr O'Connor also started to see an improvement when Victoria came out of the second wave COVID-19 lockdown.
For many trapped Melbourne residents, Mitta was just the place they had been dreaming of.
"Even during the COVID lockdown we were getting calls when it was just being suggested that it would finish," he said.
"The lockdown finished at midnight and we had people leaving messages on our machine at 1am in the morning.
"There were motorbikes here at 9am from Melbourne.
"People just wanted to enjoy life and get out and about."
DISASTERS BRING PEOPLE TOGETHER
The already tight-knit community of Mitta was brought even closer during the unforeseen events of the year just passed.
The bushfires got the ball rolling as the town made sure all residents were safe and accounted for.
"Everyone was conscious and supportive of everyone else," Mr O'Connor said.
"Everyone was aware of who was where.
"That's one of the difficulties for fire service people, understanding who's actually in the valley."
Mr Hay said the town's no fuss attitude helped them through their darkest days.
"Small towns like this pull together," he said.
"We'll be right."
LESSONS IN HARDSHIPS
While Mitta's recovery looked very different to that of devastated communities in the Upper Murray, they recognise that the risk of bushfires will always be there.
Long-time resident Mr Hay said the thought is never far from his mind as each summer approaches.
"We're surrounded by bush, but it all comes down to the wind," he said.
"That wind determines where the fire's going to go and how you'll be able to handle it.
"We're a bit lucky to have creeks and rivers around us, so there's no shortage of water.
"There's always things that we can put in place.
"You just have to deal with these situations as they come along."
Mr O'Connor agreed the risk of fire will always be present for country communities like Mitta.
But for many, they would never want to trade the rolling hills, the lush bush land and glistening creeks that they call home.
"They're always in the back of your head, it's just a matter of pre-planning and pre-organising," he said.
"We're in a bush area and potentially these things will happen, and they will happen again.
"It might not necessarily happen to us, but other locations.
"We just have to be supportive through it, that's all there is to it."
SPREADING THE WORD
As the community of Mitta continues to move towards a greater sense of normal following bushfires and COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, residents have an important message to share.
Mr O'Connor thanked tourists from major cities and surrounding communities for the support they've already shown during the recovery process.
"The support in making sure that we're OK moving forward was just amazing," he said.
"I think the main thing is that we're here, we're operating and we're happy."
Mr Hay agreed that the town and its residents were ready to continue welcoming visitors with open arms.
They'll also offer a helping hand if needed.
"We've done everything we possibly can to prepare for tourists," he said.
"People on the land here are more than happy to help tourists out.
"If they're looking to camp or fish the farmers and businesses can steer everyone to their destinations.
"There's lots to do in Mitta if you're that way inclined.
"If you just want to sit by the creek and relax, you can do that too."
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