Connection and community helping the bushfire-hit Upper Murray heal after a tough year

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Recalling the Black Summer fires that raged across her property 18 months ago, Vicki Jarvis is quickly moved to tears.

The fires badly injured most of her beloved cattle, and it was her best friend Kim Winter who came to help deal with the aftermath.

“I was banned from the paddock,” Ms Jarvis said.

“I had an incident with a cow, and had a bit of a meltdown.”

Ms Winter, who lives nearby, had help too.

“The vets from the Department of Agriculture told us you can put down the first 10, the second 10, but when you hit 40, it’s going to be hard,” she said.

“[They said,] ‘We’re experts, so let us do this,’ and that was the best choice we made.”

This grim scene was repeated on many farms across Victoria’s Upper Murray in the wake of Black Summer.

More than 430,000 hectares of land was burnt, nearly twice the size of metropolitan Melbourne.

Thirty-eight homes were lost, along with many more sheds, fences and thousands of livestock and wildlife.

And just when the community needed to come together, coronavirus restrictions meant the pub was shut for extended periods and community sport was cancelled.

“That was hard because we had nowhere to go and talk,” Ms Jarvis said.

“And we didn’t have that for such a long time.”

But Ms Jarvis and Ms Winter had each other.

“We’re there for each other all the time, and Kim’s saved me through a bit of a dark stage and got me some help,” Ms Jarvis said.

“I couldn’t cope without Kim. She’s always there; she’s always helping.”

It’s difficult for Ms Jarvis to talk about the fires, but every time it gets too much, a gentle hug from her friend is right there.

“I owe her big time,” Ms Winter explains.

That’s because, after incessant nagging, Ms Jarvis convinced Ms Winter go for a breast cancer screening, the first of which came back with no results.

When the screening van came back to town, the next screening revealed two deeply buried cysts.

“She saved my life,” Ms Winter said.

Their friendship grew instantly stronger from that point and now, after the fires, it’s unbreakable.

‘The digestive juice of trauma’

Communities in the Upper Murray are a long way off recovering from the fires.

Kate Wheeler has worked as a mental health nurse in Corryong for the last 20 years.

“It waxes and wanes a little bit, with what’s happening in the district,” she said.

“There are some people who are doing very well, and there are a few who haven’t made a lot of progress yet.”

Soon after the fires, the small community health team was mostly dealing with a flood of requests for counselling, but that’s now changed to requests for food vouchers, firewood and assistance with paying utility bills.

The Victorian Government gave $900,000 to the Upper Murray for mental health and community inclusion programs.

“We started putting a community inclusion team together, because one of the things people wanted to do is talk,” Ms Wheeler said.

“One of the biggest things I’ve learned here is that being able to talk about what happened is like the digestive juice of trauma.

“There was so much trauma in this area in January.

“Then of course we just [got] this course going and [arranged] some inclusion projects, and we got hit by COVID and that’s been very difficult.”

Phone trees for the elderly, care packages for school kids, outdoor movies and small-scale socially distanced events were the mainstay of last year.

But a series of dinner events designed to bring people together had to be scrapped.

“But we had a big ‘coming out’ in February, and we had 80 people turn up, which was fantastic,” Ms Wheeler said.

The dinners became known as Kate’s Kitchen. When Landline visited, Ms Wheeler was preparing for the sold-out Blokes’ Night Out.

According to her, when these events are held, conversation always comes back to Black Summer.

“I think it always comes back to the fires; I don’t think people have actually had time to heal, in any shape or form,” she said.

“I think it will be a long time before they do.”

Building for the future

The pristine waters of the creeks and rivers in the Upper Murray flow into the Murray River, eventually providing drinking, irrigation and environmental water for millions of people downstream.

Black Summer left them choked with debris and ash, while loss of vegetation along their banks destroyed important sites for fish.

“My eldest son summed it up when he said, ‘This is the saddest thing I’ve ever seen,'” said recreational fisher Shea Bloom.

“It starved a lot of oxygen out of the water, with the ash coming in.

“It had a lot of tar-like substance in the water, so it really starved the fish.”

A passionate group of recreational fishers has been working to ensure the waterways are restored and teeming with fish for the spring.

Log jams and boulders have been placed in the river to give the fish spots to rest and breed, while the banks are being re-vegetated with native species, replacing the willows that lined them before the fires.

The Victorian Fisheries Authority has put 12,500 juvenile Murray cod into both the Cudgewa and Corryong Creeks, and 18,500 trout into the Nariel Creek.

“It does feel good, and especially getting our kids involved, planting a tree and getting dirty, and getting into nature,” Ms Bloom said.

“It’s really fulfilling that you’re not only helping your community, but you’re helping the environment.”

Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline this Sunday at 12:30pm or on iview.

(Original ABC Article)