Bushfires scare off East Gippsland tourists as businesses face struggle to stay afloat

AUSTRALIA – The vines at the Nicholson River Winery have been enveloped by smoke since before the start of the year and it is having a detrimental effect on the fruit.

Key points:

  • Vineyard owner Ken Eckersley is calling for help for businesses affected by the bushfires
  • Another local says the tourists have stopped coming even though his business remains open
  • You can get the latest information from the Vic Emergency website or donate to the Victorian Bushfire Appeal

As he walked through his vineyard, Ken Eckersley stripped away leaves that were suffocated by the smog from fires that ripped through Sarsfield in the dying days of 2019.

The grapes were stressed, he said, and that meant the flavour of the wine would be intense.

Like many of his neighbours, Mr Eckersley and his wife Juliet have spent the past few days taking stock before the weather conditions worsen.

A predicted spike in temperatures with northerly winds and a cool change on Friday has locals decidedly on edge.

“We know that’s a recipe for a challenging day of fire weather for us … not just necessarily in East Gippsland and the north-east but with any other fires that start,” the State Control Centre’s Luke Hegarty said.

Physically, the Eckersleys’ business escaped unscathed — economically, less so.

“Tourism’s collapsed. The tourists were the first to go,” Mr Eckersley said.

“It’s devastating, this is the post-fire consequence.”

The vineyard is closed every year on Christmas Day, but this is the first time in 35 years that it has remained closed ever since.

“My chef … fled to Melbourne. He said he wasn’t coming back until he felt secure,” Mr Eckersley said.

“He’s Italian and his friends and family were contacting him from Italy saying ‘You’re crazy. What are you doing in such a dangerous place like Australia, with its snakes and spiders and sharks’.

“He wasn’t interested in coming back for, he told me, a fair while.”

Suddenly burst into tears

On December 30, spot fires came within 500 metres of the vineyard and the fire front was about 2 kilometres away.

Mr Eckersley, who stayed to protect his property, said it was heart-wrenching.

“The next day I was having a conversation with someone and I suddenly burst into tears,” he said.

As he and many other business owners in the region start the recovery process and begin to realise the terrible impact it will have on their bottom lines, he is calling for urgent support for East Gippsland from tourism authorities.

“This is an area that’s underdeveloped, that’s under represented, under sold,” he said.

“I’d love to be on even half the footing that the Great Ocean Road gets on. They’re on such a great wicket and yet they still complain all the time about the foreign tourists.

“I’d like a bit of that support.”

Like a war zone ‘with explosions going on’

Mr Eckersley’s desire to stay and defend was shared by Rob Fraser, 76, who lives at Tambo Upper, about 10 minutes down the road.

He and his wife run Tamberrah Cottages, most of which he built himself, including a windmill, chapel, restaurant and man-made dam.

The fires came uncomfortably close to the cottages, where Mr Fraser was alone.

“It was third world war, that’s the only way to describe it really. With the explosions going on,” he said.

“When I saw the fires like that I knew that we were going to lose our property.

“The last resort was to get in the dam where I’d be safe.”

His wife, Jeanne, was not pleased with this plan.

“I just thought, you’re mad,” she said.

“But he was determined to stay and protect his little empire that he’s built. I had my family and friends saying get out, get out and Robbie wouldn’t get out. What do you do? It’s very upsetting.”

Guests ‘too frightened’

Since the blazes, the Frasers have noticed a significant reduction in the number of patrons.

“We won’t have any guests come in now because they’re too frightened,” he said.

“It’s just not us. It’s Lake Entrance, probably Metung too. It’s devastating for them.”

As a result, he and Jeanne spent part of the week throwing out food that had gone to waste.

Mr Fraser expects it will affect half their business.

“It may not recover for some time,” he said.

But he was staying hopeful and had a message for the community.

“Still open for business. Still ready to deliver pizzas too. That’s what we do,” he said.

The battle to contain the fires

Firefighters have made good progress trying to contain the huge blazes which have blackened 1.2 million hectares across the state.

Luke Heagerty said they would be talking to at-risk communities to make them aware of the potential fire spread later in the week.

They will also start looking at where they might have “some challenges” later in the week.

However, the rainfall in the area has made parts of the fireground dangerous.

“We’ve had to be very careful about the way we deployed our crews but we do know that we’ve made really good progress both in terms of containing some parts of the fire but also working through the clean-up process, particularly starting to clear some roads,” he said.

Premier Daniel Andrews on Monday committed $50 million to establish a permanent agency called Bushfire Recovery Victoria, to be headed by Ken Lay, the former police commissioner.

At least 200 homes have been confirmed lost but that number is likely to rise to 300 when assessment teams do further work.

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