Six years on, Marysville is rising from the ashes.
"I lost 26 of my borrowers," says John Branton, Murrindindi Shire Council's mobile librarian, curbing tears, more than five years after the Black Saturday bushfires razed the picturesque mountain town of Marysville.
"After the fires, people came to the library and talked. They weren't interested in books. They came to share stories."
On a brutal February afternoon in 2009, the scenic hideaway of Marysville, in deeply forested foothills of the Great Dividing Range north-east of Melbourne, became a flashpoint known around the world for the horror of Black Saturday. No other community was so scarred. No other town was trapped in such an inferno.
"There's no activity, there's no people, there's no buildings, there's no birds, there's no animals," said Victoria's then-Premier, John Brumby, after the blaze. "Everything's just gone."
Approaching a six-year anniversary, wounds remain raw. Empty blocks fill windows of the town's real estate agency. For-sale signs remain staked beside driveways leading to vacant lots; levelled red earth and clumps of agapanthus the only mementos oF what once was. Of the town's 450-odd residents, 35 died. Only 34 buildings remained habitable.
But from adversity comes renewal. Marysville is rising from the ashes. The town has created a new future, full of considered appreciation, that's been led mostly by its principal industry: tourism.
"It was a really tired little place before the fires and now it has all this new life," says Julia Harris, proprietor of Marysville Lolly Shop, who operated from a shipping container for three-and-a-half years before her new store was completed. "So many well-wishers come up and offer everybody good luck. People help each other and care for each other. People come out of the woodwork."
Since the fires, Marysville's tranquillity has been replaced by the echo of nail guns and circular saws. High-visibility work wear is everywhere. Reconstruction began with houses (219 at last count), small hotels, shops and cafes – rebuilt mostly in a small-town make-do vernacular. But the town's been buoyed also by the construction of modernist civic buildings, such as a playful new police station designed by Kerstin Thompson Architects that in itself has become an attraction.
About 1000 accommodation beds in Marysville and surrounds have been replaced, as have ski-rental businesses, food outlets, and produce stores such as Made in Marysville. And any day now the makeover will be augmented by the opening of the $28-million Vibe Hotel and Conference Centre, adding a restaurant/cafe, pub, day spa, and 100 four-star rooms to the main street.
"Christmas day was amazing, because it's so quiet," says cafe proprietor Jane Fraga – one half of the husband-and-wife team who run Fraga's Cafe – of the town's background soundtrack of construction. "Rebuilding is a part of life for all who stayed."
As with the town, Jane and James Fraga's story is a case-study in survival and adaptability in the face of crisis. She's a former teacher, he's Spanish-born and worked in hospitality in London, and together they moved to Marysville in 2001 to open a cafe. Two children were born; then on that fateful day almost all was lost.
"There's no shame in living in a shed," says Jane, of the experience of temporary accommodation with a young family. "The kids loved it. Mud was everywhere."
They reopened their cafe as a pop-up: with a BBQ and their salvaged espresso machine powered by a diesel generator, all under canvas on the main street. It was a can-do existence that's helped forge a new town spirit of togetherness.
"We've shared such a big and traumatic experience," says Jane, who's documented the rise-and-fall-and-rise-again of her cafe in a scrap book. "Relationships with people in town mightn't have changed, but there's a deeper understanding now because of what we all went through."
Six years on, Fraga's Cafe does now what it's always done best: serve their Aunty Maria's sugary-sweet banoffe pie, with cups of organic Great Dividing Coffee, roasted at nearby Buxton. "Tourists are coming back," says James. "And we've always been a bit of a local meeting point."
Goodwill and good snowfalls this past winter at nearby Lake Mountain ski resort helped in the town's recovery, also. Most winters, it is a curious mix of tourists who mingle on the main street: cross-country skiers, families of snow players, bus groups, day-trippers, holiday-makers, motor-cycle tourers. Come summer, it's taken over by bushwalkers and those on more genteel pursuits – oh, yes, and now three gleaming red Ferraris and their drivers, on a day run to Marysville-and-back, via the Yarra Valley and the scenic route through the Black Spur's majestic mountain ash forests.
Beds of rosemary – a hardy perennial, an emblem of remembrance – have been planted on the main street, and nearby high ridges remain silhouetted with the pencil-thin trunks of burned trees. They look like grey-haired mountains; it is hauntingly beautiful.
"We've come a long way in six years," says Tony Thompson, a local B&B owner and former chair of the community recovery committee. "It hasn't been easy. I'm really proud of our community. The town's starting to fit back together, and as the trees grow back the town will grow with it."
As a regular visitor, mobile librarian John Branton vouches for the transformation. "More and more people are visiting Marysville for the first time, and it's bringing new optimism," he says. "Everyone's gone from using surnames to first names."
marysvilletourism.com; download a free Visit Marysville app.
Marysville is 97km north-east of Melbourne; a comfortable two-hour drive via the Yarra Valley, Healesville and the majestic Black Spur.
Local accommodation options range from self-contained cottages to B&Bs, caravan parks, holiday rentals and rooms in the soon-to-be-opened Vibe Hotel Marysville. See marysvilletourism.com for a full listing.
SEE + DO
Popular walking trails include a night-lit path to the historic Steavenson waterfalls. Other local attractions include Bruno's idiosyncratic sculpture garden (brunosart.com) and the nearby Buxton Trout and Salmon Farm (buxtontrout.com.au).
Standouts include Aunty Maria's sugary-sweet banoffe pie with a cup of locally roasted organic coffee at Fraga's Cafe (1/19 Murchison Street, Marysville, 03 5963 3216). Or take a country drive north to Buxton Ridge Winery for their cellar-door local produce platter ($20 for two; smoked trout, olives, cheese, cherries, etc) and a few drops of shiraz, sav blanc, or a celebratory quaff of their sparkling Molly Jean blanc de noir (88 Seal Rock Road, Buxton; 0428 517 147; buxtonridge.com).