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After the fires: Helping holiday spots overcome hidden hardships

Country groups organise raffles (at one, the third prize is a crime dinner with me. I suspect the first prize is a meat tray and the second a wine cask – use-by-date November 2016) and multinationals pledge millions. Staggering amounts are raised on social media. We are sitting at $150 million and counting.

Yet there is a risk we could approach this with a blanket bombing of goodwill rather than picking our targets.

Urgent aid is one thing: sustainable recovery quite another.

I write this from the small town of Loch Sport that sits on the shore of the Gippsland Lakes. It has not been hit by fire and yet thousands of holiday makers have returned to Melbourne, justifiably wary of what may lay ahead in the next few weeks.

They have just built a new supermarket here, the pub has new owners and the fish and chip shop has been taken over and was running at full capacity.

Before the fire threat, the biggest issue here was whether a hamburger could still be called a hamburger when it was served in bread after the last bun was used in the fish shop’s rush hour.

The greatest asset at Loch Sport is the lake. There are birds, fish and dolphin pods.

The greatest asset at Loch Sport is the lake. There are birds, fish and dolphin pods.Credit:John Silvester

Across the lake is the picture-postcard town of Paynesville. No fire and very few visitors. Cafes that last year had queues are near empty.

Money alone is not enough. We need to return (when safe) to spots such as Paynesville, Bright, Corryong and Bairnsdale.

The businesses there don’t want charity, they want customers. While the offer of interest-free loans may be great, the fish and chip shop owners would much rather just sell fish and chips (or hamburgers in buns).

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So here is the plan. Tourism Victoria should re-calibrate in the short term. Spend less time promoting Melbourne big events and work to have Victorians explore their own state.

While promoter Michael Gudinski will do his usual fantastic job organising a big city rock concert to raise funds, how about dozens of smaller regional ones to encourage visitors? Free trains and buses to regional events, and celebrity chefs to cook with local produce.

The AFL has announced a Victoria v All Stars game to raise funds – a noble initiative. How about every Victorian club commits to hold their 2020-21 pre-season camp at a regional centre? The Bombers in Bright, the Cats in Corryong and the Bulldogs in Bairnsdale.

Scott Morrison has made it clear that he will open the Treasury safe to sensible initiatives for the rebuild. Here is a real opportunity for there to be some good from the darkness.

Environmental protection, bushfire resilience and commercial opportunities can work together. Business and the bush can be allies. Why not aim not to rebuild but to improve?

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Here at Loch Sport the greatest asset is the lake. There are birds, fish and dolphin pods. It is family and pet friendly, you can get a park at the shops and you don’t have to wear Portsea-style linen pants to the pub for a schnitzel. The rentals here do not require you to sell your eldest child into slavery or a kidney to organ traffickers.

The locals want a safe harbour that will benefit thousands of recreational boaties who use the inland waterway. Here is the chance. There are kilometres of beaches that over time give way to the waves. Then they bring in a barge; pump it back for it to erode away again – the nautical version of pissing in the wind. Build a few rock walls and the problem is fixed.

That is too often the approach in near-forgotten parts of the state: patchwork solutions to long-term problems.

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Across the impacted areas, ask the locals what they want. Let’s look for permanent solutions. Purpose-built community centres that double as emergency centres, initiatives to encourage visitors and greater support for paid and volunteer emergency service workers.

Football and netball clubs are often the heartbeat of local communities, which is why the AFL’s offer to help rebuild will be vital. But it must commit to long-term support to these clubs that are often kept afloat by volunteers.

We have to be there for the long haul. The 2009 Black Saturday fires show us that while the bush recovers, many of the human survivors remained permanently marked.

Perhaps the time has come to stop worrying about the Prime Minister’s holiday to Hawaii and worry about your next vacation.

Get off your arse and get out into Victoria. Buy some relish in Rosedale (stop at the cafe where the bathroom has been turned into a homage to Queen Elizabeth II), have some seafood at Paynesville’s Sardine eatery or grab a snack at Lochy’s at Loch Sport (I recommend the curry pie, but don’t dribble it on your linen pants).

Beats an almond milk cappuccino in Chapel Street any day.

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