IT WAS A SUMMER no-one in East Gippsland will ever forget. The recent bushfire crisis was the Victorian region’s largest natural disaster and no community was left unaffected.

The fires were first reported on 21 November last year and not finally declared contained until three months later, on 20 February. The region’s entire population of almost 47,000 residents – plus thousands of tourists – were directly or indirectly impacted.

The road to recovery is largely being paved by community groups. Although restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have affected recovery processes, locals hope that once the dust settles, visitors will return to East Gippsland. Reviving tourism is vital to helping people get back on their feet.

In the meantime, as residents band together to rebuild their homes and businesses, heart-warming stories of generosity, kindness and community spirit abound. Here are some of their stories.

Mallacoota

Apocalyptic images of people forced to shelter on the beach under blazing red skies were circulated around the globe and put Mallacoota firmly in the spotlight during the bushfire disaster. The fire catastrophe hit the small coastal town hard: 120 houses, plus commercial buildings and other infrastructure, were lost.

Local resident Grant Cockburn, president of the Mallacoota & District Business & Tourism Association and owner of Mallacoota Hireboats, has been active in the town’s recovery.

“Our initial focus was to boost morale, regain some normality and restore important assets that the locals enjoy. It was all about moving forward and getting everyone back on the beach and enjoying the place again,” Grant says. “The local Mallacoota Lions Club have been fantastic. They’ve been instrumental in coordinating numerous projects, including rebuilding the beach access steps at Bastion Point.”

Teams of people from television programs such as the Today Show and The Block were also on hand to assist. The Lions Club worked with The Block to rebuild an elaborate chicken coop at the local school as well as a new barbecue pavilion and picnic facilities at Betka Beach. Boardwalks, walking paths and jetties around the lake are also being restored.

The Mallacoota Wharf is often a hive of activity, where fishers and charters launch their boats, and pelicans and seagulls wait patiently for a free feed of fish off-cuts. (Image credit: Don Fuchs)

Dale Winward, another local tourism operator, runs Mallacoota Cruises. With his historic timber ferry built in the early 1900s from Huon pine and kauri, MV Loch-Ard, he shows tourists one of the town’s main assets – the beautiful waters of Mallacoota Inlet. He also works as an abalone diver, operates scenic coach tours and transfers hikers into surrounding wilderness areas.

In late December last year, he dropped off a group of 11 experienced hikers at Wingan Inlet, their plan being to trek the wild coast of Croajingolong National Park back to Mallacoota. Later that day, with the fire front rapidly approaching, Dale made the courageous decision to go out on his boat to try to rescue the hikers.

With the fire front rapidly approaching, Dale Winward made the courageous decision to go out to sea on his boat to rescue a group of stranded hikers. (Image credit: Don Fuchs)

“They had no idea the firestorm was approaching,” he says. “The road was cut off and we were told by a policeman that a boat rescue would be too dangerous. But there was no choice, we had to go, otherwise we would have lost them.” He searched the shoreline, eventually found them at Red River, where they’d planned to camp, and returned them to safety.

Many of Mallacoota’s major employers had their buildings destroyed by fire, including Victoria’s largest abalone co-op. Before the fire, the Abalone Fishermen’s Co-operative employed eight permanent and 40 casual staff and had an annual turnover of about $15 million. For any small town, the loss of such a business is devastating. Because it’s the town’s biggest employer, rebuilding the facility has been a priority: it’s scheduled to reopen in the middle of next year.

 “It was horrible to lose the co-op but we are remaining positive and excited about moving forward,” says co-op board member Jason York, a local abalone and sea urchin diver. “We’re using a small, temporary facility but the new plant will provide additional opportunities for us to expand and be more productive.”

It will facilitate waste-product processing: abalone shells will be able to be crushed for fertiliser and soft components of these marine delicacies incorporated into sauces for international export. Opportunities are also being explored for it to become a processing plant for sea urchins, which are a pest in this area, dominating the ocean floor and affecting marine biodiversity. The processing of urchins in Mallacoota will help reduce numbers of this pest while opening new revenue streams for the co-op.

Jason York (right) with a catch of sea urchins. Mallacoota’s new Fishermen’s Co-op will process abalone and sea urchins, providing critical local jobs. (Image credit: Don Fuchs)

Buchan

The limestone rock of the Buchan Caves was formed about 400–300 million years ago, during the Devonian Period. Over time the limestone was slowly dissolved by water, leaving a cave system that is among the most spectacular in Australia.

Hamish Hancock, ranger team leader for Parks Victoria at the Buchan Caves Reserve, is passionate about the caves. He appreciates their importance as both a significant geological site and a tourist attraction. “The whole town relies on the caves for its livelihood and we were very lucky to escape the recent fires with relatively minor damage at the reserve,” he says.

The fire at Buchan came through from Snowy River National Park on the afternoon of 30 December. It swept through the reserve’s Northern Arm Campsite and razed two self-contained cabins, five eco retreats, a kitchen facility, and a barbecue shelter. Fire crews managed to douse the Visitor Centre, which houses heritage items, relics and interpretation displays, with fire retardant. This saved the main buildings and their contents.

Although all the hills surrounding the reserve were severely burnt, the valley itself was relatively unaffected due to the presence of an assortment of non-native trees. “That’s the beauty of exotics and deciduous varieties; they’re not full of oils that explode when they superheat like the eucalypts,” Hamish says.

The impact of fire and smoke on the caves was initially unknown but geotechnical assessments and air-quality tests have now confirmed there was no damage within the cave system. Once access was granted, the immediate focus was to fix all the fuse boxes, wiring, lighting and phone lines that run through the caves.

The heritage-listed entrance to Fairy Cave, built in 1938, was, however, completely destroyed. It will be replaced via the heritage restoration process. According to Hamish, “the clean-up and recovery is happening very quickly, faster than we could have ever imagined”.

Hamish Hancock from Parks Victoria has been instrumental in the clean-up, recovery and rehabilitation within Buchan Caves Reserve. (Image credit: Don Fuchs)

Help came from the east coast of Canada in the form of firefighters from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, who were deployed to assist with the East Gippsland recovery.

The 22 firefighters, specialists in rugged bushfire terrain, worked at Buchan Caves Reserve for four days, clearing ash and debris, opening roads and walking tracks, chain-sawing and managing hazardous trees, and assisting with heavy machinery. “They just ripped in and put us a couple of months ahead of schedule,” Hamish says.

The reserve is also home to the tree known as Buchan blue wattle, which is endemic to the area. It is found mostly in clay soils over limestone rock. Many of the big stands were wiped out by the fire, but, because the wattle needs and thrives on fire to regenerate, the species is likely to experience a strong germination phase.

The story is different for four gigantic Monterey cypress trees that were planted in 1920 to provide shade for the first toilet block at Royal Cave. They didn’t survive the blaze. Their legacy, however, will continue: timber from these trees will be used to replace picnic tables and seating, and will serve as a reminder of the bushfires.

Nowa Nowa and Wairewa

Sandra and Greg Huggins have owned the Nowa Nowa General Store for 10 years and always considered their business as a safe place and community hub for locals and visitors. When the fires threatened they didn’t think twice about keeping the doors open to act as a communication base and food centre for emergency services crews and locals.

Sandra, Greg and their team worked around the clock for the first few days, cooking barbecues for anyone who needed a meal. They were eventually evacuated, but since returning, their focus has been to continue helping their community. They set up a ‘pay it forward’ scheme to provide fire-affected residents with free food, fuel, products and supplies.

“In the beginning everyone was ringing us asking, ‘What can we do?’,” Sandra recalls. “People were offering to give us money so we put it into a fund and then we paid it forward to locals who had lost things or were in need. It’s been really heartening. People donated whatever they could. One day a man came in to buy a bottle of water; he handed over $50 and said, ‘Keep the change.’ A local pensioner donated $600, and a business in Lakes Entrance who wanted to remain anonymous has contributed about $3000.”

The ripple effect of the ‘pay it forward’ idea has had a powerful and emotional impact on Kylie Miller, who lives with her husband, Brett, on the Gippsland Lakes at Newlands Arm, near Paynesville. The couple also owns a 4ha hobby farm at Wairewa, a small farming community a few kilometres east of Nowa Nowa. There the couple planned to build their dream home on a scenic hilltop.

Kylie and Brett weren’t at the Wairewa property when the fire front came through, but neighbours saved their cabin before retreating to the local community hall where 30 people, 15 dogs and two horses were protected by Country Fire Authority (CFA) firefighters during the firestorm. The couple lost fences, water tanks, pumps, wiring and sheds, and the orchard took a hit as well. It’s the irreplaceable things that most matter to them. “What we really love and miss are the majestic old trees, our orchards, the rolling green hills, the lichen-covered timber fences and the abundance of birds and wildlife that can be seen on the property.”

A few weeks after the fire, Kylie stopped at the Nowa Nowa store to buy a drink. She saw some fruit trees for sale out the front so picked out a replacement lime tree to plant at the orchard. When she went to pay, Sandra informed her about the ‘pay it forward’ scheme and insisted that Kylie take it for free. “The incredible generosity is what makes everyone emotional,” Kylie says. “People are so amazing and kind.”

When I meet her at her property, she is cradling the lime tree in her arms and has decided to plant the tree only once water is reinstalled on the property. “This lime tree means everything and I want to give it every possible chance of survival,” she says. “To me it symbolises so many things – new growth, new beginnings, recovery, a fresh start, healing and the unbelievable generosity that is attached to the ‘pay it forward’ scheme. I still cry every time I think about it.”

Sarsfield

The small farming district of Sarsfield, located about 20km north-east of Bairnsdale, lost 65 homes when the fires hit on 30 December. Many more properties lost fences, sheds and livestock. Eventually the fire stopped about 100m from the Sarsfield Recreation Reserve (SRR) and community hall.

The hall has since become an unofficial meeting place and support hub for residents. Jo Andrews is one of many who have volunteered their time to help the badly affected community. She and other volunteers have provided more than 100 relief packages to fire-affected homes and have organised community events to support people through their recovery. For the first three weeks after the fire, the hall was open every day and then the SRR committee began hosting weekly ‘Friday Night Feeds’, where all food is provided and cooked by local businesses and community groups.

“Everyone was busy cleaning up their properties, so initially we thought it would be good to provide people with a hearty meal to keep them going,” Jo says. “Community cohesion started to build and neighbours began relying on each other and talking about their experiences. We don’t have any formal mental health support at the moment, but we have become an important hub for informal conversations. There’s a real sense of community connection with no expectations. People can just rock up, eat and chat.”

Friday Night Feeds were quickly established at Sarsfield to help locals in their recovery. COVID-19 restrictions have limited face-to-face interactions, so volunteers have since focused on providing support via online platforms. (Image credit: Don Fuchs)

A photography program for the children of Sarsfield was also launched at the hall. Photography company Fujifilm donated 20 digital cameras, which will be used to document the recovery process from the perspectives of local children. They will take turns photographing their lives for a week, before passing the cameras on to other children. The photos will be printed and displayed in the hall. Down the track, the images will be used in an art show or exhibition. “Some kids are affected more than others, so capturing what their world looks like is going to be really diverse,” Jo says. “That’s a bit special.”

Among those who lost their homes and belongings are the Bryant brothers, Boris (17) and Dylan (16). They lost the house they lived in with their primary carer, Aunty Margaret. The boys attend Bairnsdale Secondary College where they’re part of the Clontarf Academy, a national program that focuses on education and sport to help young Indigenous students achieve their full potential.

Despite their own personal losses, Boris and Dylan have shown remarkable resilience, generosity and community spirit. When the opportunity to volunteer with BlazeAid arose through the academy, the boys didn’t hesitate to chip in. They helped cook evening meals and worked with other BlazeAid volunteers. “We put up our hands to go and help because we just wanted to give something back to the community,” says Boris.

The boys are currently living in emergency housing in Bairnsdale with Aunty Margaret and other family members. They are sharing a bedroom with their younger brother, Alan, so it’s a tight squeeze until they can find more permanent accommodation. “Our room is a bit messy at the moment with the three of us crammed in there,” Dylan says, laughing. “Hopefully, we’ll find a bigger house soon.”

Wildlife and environment

More than 1.5 million hectares of land was burnt during the fire season, threatening the survival of many native plants and animals. The state Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP), along with Parks Victoria and other conservation specialists, are working together to understand the impact of the fires and lead the biodiversity recovery plan.

Once access was granted into the fire-affected regions, Chief Conservation Scientist for Parks Victoria, Dr Mark Norman,  and his team performed reconnaissance flights all over eastern Victoria. They identified 18 sites of importance for wildlife, threatened species and vulnerable habitats. “From the flights, we’re finding sobering impacts. [There were] really high intensity fires in some areas,” Mark says. “In other areas, there are large patches of green on the landscape and we’re really pleased that some areas have remained unscathed, and they are becoming a focus of our attention.”

Mark says the scale of these fires and their impacts was unprecedented. “We’re moving into new times and new circumstances because of climate change and its impacts,” he says. “This was not a normal bushfire – it was beyond that. The recovery will take a long time and some landscapes may change forever.”

Before the fire front approached, an emergency rescue of threatened eastern bristlebirds was undertaken by scientists and wildlife experts at Howe Creek, in Croajingolong NP. Fifteen birds were captured and taken to Melbourne Zoo where they will live until it is safe for them to be returned. Another important project is underway to rescue threatened aquatic species, such as varieties of galaxiid fish and freshwater mussels and crayfish.

Helping injured and displaced wildlife depends heavily on volunteers such as Ary Row, a wildlife carer who runs the Bruthen Bat and Roo Wildlife Shelter at her 8ha property. She is currently caring for two young kangaroos named Royni and Karol that suffered burns and other injuries in the fires. Royni was named after local police officers, Roy and Roni, who drove through the fire to rescue her. Royni and Karol are currently housed in pens to limit their movement while they heal. As they gain strength they will be soft-released onto the property and when fully recovered they will be introduced to a wild population of local kangaroos.

Ary also recently cared for 15 flying-foxes that were rescued from a large colony at Bairnsdale. She bottle-fed them, nursed them back to health and provided an environment where they could regain their social structures. Many flying-foxes were killed due to the extreme heat, smoke and fire stress.

Ary, too, has suffered personal trauma during the bushfire crisis, with the passing of her stepfather caused by a fire event on the south coast of New South Wales. Her teenage brother, a firefighter, is dealing with post-traumatic stress after being on the frontline. “I’ve definitely struggled and it’s been extremely hard,” Ary says.

“I’ve had good and bad days, but caring for injured wildlife and doing something positive keeps me going. We have an amazing network of carers and wildlife shelters working together and none of us would be here without each other.”

This article was originally published in Issue 158 of Australian Geographic.