Mallacoota takes road to bushfire recovery

Mallacoota RSL president Mark Tregellas has driven across Victoria for donations for the town.
Mallacoota RSL president Mark Tregellas has driven across Victoria for donations for the town.

The tourist town that became a "poster child" of Australia's devastating bushfires is still finding its feet, five months later.

Mallacoota, in Victoria's East Gippsland region, is starting to come back to life with locals hoping to make their town better than before its scorching.

"Mallacoota was the poster child for the fires and since coronavirus has hit we have completely fallen off the charts," Mallacoota RSL president Mark Tregellas told AAP.

"Mallacoota prior to the fires was like a lot of country towns in Victoria - it was slowly dying.

"I hope that Mallacoota can use the bushfire recovery to not only recover back to what it was, but to also try to reverse that trend by innovative ideas that can attract younger families to Mallacoota."

The dedicated resident has driven across the state to collect donated blankets, a trailer and other goods for the town.

"I am still getting a lot of requests for help ... but it is certainly less than what it was prior to COVID-19," the former policeman said.

Thousands of people huddled together at the Mallacoota foreshore on December 31 as the sky turned blood-red.

Residents and holidaymakers had been told it was too late to leave, with the town hemmed in by fire.

Bushfire licked parts of Mallacoota, destroying about 100 homes in its fury. A wind change late on December 31 spared the town centre.

The Australian Defence Force was called in, with HMAS Choules rescuing about 1400 people and 130-plus dogs in two January runs.

As workers repair buildings in Mallacoota - a slow process given many had asbestos - business and tourism are yet to bounce back fully.

"It has really smashed the business and tourism in the town. Firstly because everything over summer and Christmas has gone, plus Easter," Mr Tregellas said.

"COVID-19 sort of shut the town down and everyone become quite worried. There were no real playbooks for any of this."

Leanne Phillips, a co-owner of Mallacoota IGA, lost her shed, boat, four-car garage, ride-on mower and fishing gear in the summer fires.

Contract workers who have cleaned up her property are also keeping the shop ticking over as they buy goods.

"It's slow going but they are doing a great job," she said of the workers.

The state government's clean-up works program in Mallacoota is set to run until the end of August.

Bushfire Recovery Victoria says the government has given more than $300 million towards the state's bushfire response and recovery.

One of 11 community recovery committees in the state has been formed for Mallacoota and its district to help fuel locally-driven recovery.

Despite the town being on the mend, coronavirus restrictions have kept tourists away.

Still, there's optimism that they can use their new-found notoriety to entice tourists, with overnight stays allowed in Victoria from June 1.

"We are all maintaining a lot of optimism and the community is up and running. The majority of people are in good spirits," Ms Phillips said.

"I hope we learn our lesson and really, really learn from what has happened and how horrendous it really was."

Australian Associated Press