Thousands paid tribute to the volunteer firefighters during an Australia Day parade that was, in the words of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, “a little bit different”.
“This Australia Day is special,” Mr Andrews said at the official flag-raising ceremony.
“It’s a little bit different because we have seen in the last few months the most extraordinary examples of courage and kindness, compassion and capability … and so many acts of generosity.”
The annual parade, which began on Swanston Street and made its way to Kings Domain, was led by members of the Mallacoota CFA, which battled a blaze that trapped thousands on the beach in eastern Victoria over the New Year period.
Bushfires have claimed five lives, burnt 1.5 million hectares and destroyed more than 400 buildings in Victoria since the fire season began.
Captain Lewis said firefighters “deserve every accolade that can be thrown at them”.
“They were standing up asleep at some stages … we just didn’t stop. Nobody took a rest, they said ‘we’ll keep going until this is over … they just did not stop.”
The community was still in shock, he said. Residents were being allowed in to collect possessions but real recovery would take time.
“Time will cure probably everything but it’s going to take a long time,” he said.
Mr Andrews thanked emergency services workers and defence force personnel for their service during the crisis and said it was still ongoing.
“We have seen the worst of nature and the best of the Australian spirit,” he said.
Across the city, outside Parliament House, thousands turned out for the now-annual Invasion Day rally, with this year’s attendees asked to hand over cash to “pay the rent” for “living on stolen land”. Collectors moved through the crowd taking donations.
“We have to ask you to pay the rent for being on stolen land so that we can self-determine our destiny,” former Victorian MP and Greens member Lidia Thorpe told the crowd.
Ms Thorpe, who was the first Aboriginal woman elected to Victorian Parliament, said funds collected at the march would go to a funeral fund set up to help pay for the burials of impoverished Indigenous families.
“We are so sick and so poor that we can’t even bury our people any more,” she said.
The rally, organised by the group Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR), is an annual response to the official Australia Day celebrations marking the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788.
Other speakers at the Invasion Day rally used their platform to take aim at government inaction on chronic issues in Indigenous communities, such as child removal, disproportionate incarceration numbers, deaths in custody and poor health, as well as the fallout from the nation’s recent bushfire crisis.
Aunty Di Murray, a traditional owner from Arnhem Land, said she offered her condolences to the victims of the bushfires and the “horrible destruction” of wildlife.
“Cultural burns is the way to go,” she said, referring to traditional Indigenous practices of burning for land management.
Rally MC and WAR organiser Meriki Onus said “billions of animals” and homes might have been saved with more input from Indigenous communities.
“If they listened to us, these fires might not have been happening,” she told the crowd.
Controversial YouTuber and right-wing figure Avi Yemini and a number of his associates were removed from the Invasion Day rally by police, to the screams of protesters.
“We don’t want these people to be the centre of attention today,” said Ms Onus, as Mr Yemini was pulled from the fray.
About 20 far-right counter-protesters were also seen being moved on by police outside Flinders Street Station.
Police arrested two people, a 34-year-old man accused of breaching the peace and hindering police and a 35-year-old accused of breaching the peace.
Earlier on Sunday, about 300 people woke early for a dawn “mourning” service in St Kilda, recognising the hurt Australia Day causes for many Aboriginal communities.
The We-Akon Dilinja (Mourning Reflection) started with a didgeridoo “call to event” and included readings of historical documents relating to individual achievements of Boonwurrung ancestors.
“Many rightly see Australia Day as the opportunity to celebrate the most extraordinary achievement in the creation and building of an amazing nation,” Port Phillip councillor Dick Gross said.
“Others see this day as representing invasion, dispossession and despair,” Cr Gross said.
“These two seemingly contradictory ideas can be reconciled if we augment our celebration with a ceremony of solemnity, mourning and reflection.”
A fireworks display originally planned for Australia Day was cancelled this month because staff at Parks Victoria, which supports the display, have been busy dealing with the state’s bushfire crisis.
Rachael Dexter is a journalist & audio video producer at The Age.