The bushfires: the sustenance of the relief effort

Kerry and Fred Marchi are long-term members of the business community in Cann River in East Gippsland. For years they managed the local service station – when that closed they did some travelling and 18 months or so ago they bought the Relics Café and Restaurant in the heart of the community, looking to fund more travelling in the future.

They had stocked up the café in the run-up to Christmas to cater for what is usually far and away the busiest time of the year for the picturesque region…but then the fires came calling.

The decision to stay put

In late December the fires came really close to Cann River on three occasions, and on the third too close for comfort – the community was evacuated. Fred and Kerry were packing to leave with everyone else, when, “Fred turned to me and asked ‘who’s going to feed all the firefighters’?” Kerry says. “That was it, we decided to stay put.”

A young girl had come up from Melbourne to work in the café over Christmas, and vowed she wouldn’t leave without Fred and Kerry. When I told her it was time for her to evacuate she said to me, ‘you’re not leaving, are you’?” Kerry recalls. “I took a while to persuade her to go.”

Fred and Kerry spent the following weeks providing breakfast, lunch and dinner for those fighting the fires, and subsequently everyone involved in the relief and clear-up effort.

“The fires threatened on all sides, and if it wasn’t for the efforts of the fire brigade and the volunteers Cann River itself would have been lost,” Kerry explains. “They managed to save all the property within a radius of about 15 mins property around the centre, but a lot of homes and outbuildings outside that area went up in flames.”

Keeping the community going

With their five staff members joining the evacuation the couple worked from dawn until dusk to feed everyone. One

friend from the township had stayed to help out however, they were joined by Kerr’s sister-in-law and they soon got special dispensation for their chef – who had joined the evacuation, to be escorted back into Cann River.

The only route into town, the Princes Highway, remained closed for three weeks after the fires first hit and supplies soon ran out with Fred and Kerry feeding upwards of a 100 people at each sitting – they were looking after members of the police force, the NSW State Emergency Service (SES), the army, the Country Fire Authority (CFA), The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELP), logging contractors and even American firefighters and clean-up experts – the overseas contingent sleeping in tents on the Cann River sports oval.

“The DELP were very helpful,” Kerry says. “They arranged four our suppliers to be allowed through theall the roadblocks, escorted in by the army, each week and the local dairy got a permit to deliver milk.”

Until the Princes Highway reopened, and Cann River’s evacuees were allowed to return home, the Relics Café was the only business open in the township, and it is only now that Kerry sees things returning to a sense of normality. Nevertheless, although tourist numbers are way down on usual for the time of year, Kerry has been is grateful for the support the community is receiving and the generosity of those who are coming.

“People are coming in from other parts of Gippsland, from Melbourne and from even even further afield,” Kerry says. “On more than one occasion someone has bought a coffee, paid for it with a 50-dollar note and told me to keep the change.”

This story first appeared in issue 28 of the Inside Small Business quarterly magazine

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