After fires started tearing through Victoria’s north-east, Charlotte Houston cleared out her sewing studio.
The shopfront in the small town of Tallangatta has been stripped of the usual fabric and sewing machines to make way for donated goods which are being distributed by the Towong Shire Council.
“We just swept the studio next door and we’ve had pallet loads of water, clothing and food being trucked in and trucked out,” she said.
She’s currently doing the sewing for her retail business in her lounge room.
She’s just one example of the extraordinary resilience and collaboration being shown by business men and women in fire-affected zones as they face some of the toughest economic conditions in recent years.
The fire threat is far from over. There are currently 19 ongoing fires which have blackened more than 1.4 million hectares across Victoria.
Tallangatta, a town of about 4,000 people, was at the heart of the response and relief operations at the height of the fires which kicked off on New Year’s Eve.
It continues to support the firefighting effort as the blazes rage in Corryong, about 100 kilometres further east along the Murray Valley Highway.
Ms Houston is using the opportunity to get her retail business in order and she’s found an upside to the disaster.
It is not just orders for her bespoke vintage fabric products that are coming in.
“One lady ordered a belt and she said ‘I’ve put double the money in’,” Ms Houston said.
“I want you to spend that extra on self-care, because you’re going to need it at this time.
“I’m very touched by that kind of support as well.”
‘I’m just doing my job’
Around the corner, Mandy Crispin ran her bakery continuously for seven days to provide food for the CFA and other agencies.
She is still feeding them, providing 700 salad rolls every day as part of a catering contract for firefighters and the local forestry firm, HPV.
All around town, locals praise her energy and dedication.
“I’m just doing my job,” she said.
Her usual staff of five has doubled, and she is relying on volunteers to help with the workload.
“The community response and spirit has been overwhelming,” she said.
One of those volunteers is Debra Burt. Her plant and decor shop, The Potted Cumquat, is just down the block.
“We have to make the best of a bad situation,” she said.
Ms Burt has kept her doors open to show locals and passers-by that life goes on.
“People might come here at the moment to work, to replace the power but hopefully they will have a good experience and they will come back again,” she said.
“And it’s that continuation of that support that we need.”
Tallangatta was already facing economic challenges associated with the drought, but Ms Burt was confident the town would rebound.
“I have been blown away by the community support from people outside of the zone but who haven’t been affected but are coming to our little town already just to come and spend some money or talk,” she said.
No tourists around at the busiest time of year
Fires in East Gippsland are still burning and access to towns like Nowa Nowa is restricted.
Locals have been asked to evacuate three times which means Sandra Huggins’s general store is suffering.
“Nobody’s coming up here and I guess it doesn’t help that there’s a big sign that says ‘don’t go to East Gippsland, there’s bushfires’,” Ms Huggins said.
“We stock up for Christmas and New Year. This is our busiest time and it keeps us going over winter when there are no tourists around.”
She urges people who want to help to visit small towns when they can.
Even just buy the paper, and some milk and bread … there’s lots of stuff they could buy,” she said.
The economic impact is being felt well away from the fire zones.
In Leongatha — more than 200 kilometres from the fires in Gippsland — Victor Boscoe’s caravan park is experiencing an 85 to 90 per cent drop in bookings.
Ordinarily, he gets anywhere from three to five caravans pull in every day.
The smoke from Gippsland can be seen and smelt in his park.
“We get a lot of international visitors — France, England, Germany in their little vans — they haven’t turned up at all,” he said.
“We’ve got cabins sitting vacant.”
Ironically, some of those who have visited are those who have had to flee the fires.
The federal government will on Tuesday hold a round table with business groups to talk about possible relief for businesses.
“If there is room somewhere to help those smaller businesses beyond [the fire zone] to keep going, to keep the whole economy going, I would say please look into it prime minister,” Mr Boscoe said.