It’s hard to believe that next week will mark the first anniversary of the bushfires that chewed their way through the Mallacoota district destroying more than 120 homes.
Over 200 properties were impacted by the devastating fires which cut Mallacoota off from the rest of East Gippsland after roads leading in were impacted by unstable roads and fallen trees.
The township of Mallacoota is home to about 1050 permanent residents and most were affected, either directly or indirectly by the fires in some capacity.
For those who lost their homes, the majority are still without them and are living with other family members, in temporary accommodation such as modular homes or caravans.
Some have packed up their cars and left, not sure if they will return.
Processing the heartbreak the fires wrought has been a nuanced process. Some have coped well, moved on with their lives, and put it down to a hiccup in their overall lives.
Others are still struggling to deal with the losses they suffered and the encroaching anniversary will force them to relive painful memories they’d sooner forget.
For the young people of Mallacoota, having somewhere to spend time and enjoy themselves away from what has been a particularly difficult year with the added burden of COVID, is important.
The Sanctuary Mallacoota Youth Group was set up just after the fires and has been a safe haven for young people to be together and support each other as they recover from the Black Summer bushfires.
It was formed in direct response to the bushfires and gives participants a place to express themselves, play music, make art or shoot a game of pool.
Last week The Sanctuary received a low-key visit by Australia’ s Governor-General, David Hurley and his wife, Her Excellency, Mrs Linda Hurley.
It was the third attempt by the Governor-General to schedule a visit to Mallacoota, which was arguably the hardest hit by the bushfire catastrophe in East Gippsland, after the pandemic meant his planned trip had to be rescheduled.
Mr Hurley had a couple of games of pool with some of the youth at The Sanctuary, while Mrs Hurley led everyone in chorus with a rendition of ‘You Are My Sunshine’.
The Governor-General told the Snowy River Mail, that it had been “a disruptive year for kids” but Mallacoota was in “recovery mode” and there was “an air of optimism” and support for one another as the community moved forward through the crisis.
The coordinator of The Sanctuary, 30-year-old Brodie Gaudion, described the Governor-General and Mrs Hurley’s visit as “engaging”.
During the bushfire crisis Ms Gaudion managed to evacuate to a refuge centre, set up in the township.
She said while her grandma’s house burnt down, thankfully, grandma escaped in time.
Jya-Ruby Nation, who begins Year 11 next year, evacuated from Mallacoota on December 30 with her mother, sister and grandma, leaving behind her brother and father to defend their home.
It would be several weeks before the family would be reunited.
Ms Nation said it was a “scary” time leaving behind the male members of her family “but trusted them to be safe”.
Airly Embleton-Mew, who begins Year 12 studies next year, said her family made it to the refuge centre in town at the height of the fires.
“It was packed and really smoky with about 1000 people there,” Ms Embleton-Mew said.
While her family left the centre after four hours to return home, Ms Embleton- Mew stayed on as a volunteer for the next 14 hours.
Ms Embleton-Mew said she’s “happy this year is over” and is “looking forward to new opportunities and growth” in 2021.
She says “everyone has been affected in some way” by the bushfires.
Ms Gaudion said for some trying to return to their normal lives has been difficult due to a lack of accommodation in Mallacoota.
“There are no rentals and accommodation is prioritised for tourists, rather than contributing to the community,” she said.
Ms Nation is aware of people who have left Mallacoota, namely health care professionals, and some from the school community, because of the absence of accommodation.
“They’d like to stay here, but they can’t unless they live with their parents,” she said.
Australia’s Governor-General, David Hurley and his wife, Linda Hurley, with the coordinator of the The Sanctuary Mallacoota Youth Group, Brodie Gaudion, and Mallacoota P-12 College students, Jya-Ruby Nation and Airly Embleton-Mew in the township last week. K476-8276