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In the ashes of Australia's bushfires, town of Kangaroo Valley pulls together to rebuild

Kangaroo Valley, Australia — Katrina Endean spent the past 13 years working to build her catering business in Kangaroo Valley, a popular tourist town on Australia's eastern coast. But in just one day, it all went up in flames. All her equipment and the property where she worked were destroyed when a bushfire ripped through the Southern Highlands in New South Wales.

"I've lived here for 28 years and every single year you think, is this going to be the year a fire hits?" she said, adding that she's never seen a season this dry before. "On New Year's Eve we were just watching it creep up around us in surrounding areas. And then it just roared through."

On January 4, a change in the wind pushed the Currowan fire, burning just hours south of Sydney, towards Kangaroo Valley. It was one of more than 100 fires burning in the state at the beginning of the new year.

Australia's fire season began months early, in September 2019, after a dry and warm winter, and the devastation that resulted is unlike any the country has seen before.

Endean is just one of thousands of people whose lives and livelihoods have been impacted by the ongoing bushfire crisis in Australia. She was the on-site caterer at Kangaroo Valley Bush Retreat, a popular destination for weddings.

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The function area at the Kangaroo Valley Bush Retreat, a popular wedding venue in New South Wales, Australia, after the Currowan fire hit the property on January 4, 2020. Photo courtesy of Kangaroo Valley Bush Retreat

In 2019, there were 78 weddings at the property. But the owner has now been forced to cancel and refund 120 weddings booked for the next 18 months.

"I've spent the last two weeks calling 120 brides to tell them we can't host their wedding," said Kurt Menzel, the owner of Kangaroo Valley Bush Retreat. "It was a vicious fire that just came through from two sides."

Along with Endean's catering kitchen, the cabins, reception, lookout and outdoor rock cathedral were all damaged.

While the fire only destroyed a few properties in the immediate area, the impact has been felt throughout the community.

"I used so many local suppliers for my produce. Wedding parties would also source local photographers, stylists and cellars for alcohol when they came down here," Endean told CBS News. "There's now a flow-on effect hurting all the little businesses in town."  

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A damaged sign after the Currowan fire hit Kangaroo Valley in January 2020. The region is known for its local wombat population. Tess Orrick/CBS News

Menzel estimates one wedding could bring in about $60,000 in total for his facility and other local businesses.

"We've had about 1,000 weddings here and more than 100,000 guests come through," he said. "When wedding parties came down to Kangaroo Valley they would not just stay with us — they would spend money in town. So I don't know if people realize how this is affecting everyone."

Many local business owners have been forced to lay off staff as they wonder what the future holds.

"This is usually our busiest time of the year," explains Paula Sellar, the owner of a housekeeping service called Clean Freaks Kangaroo Valley. She said she usually handles several vacation rentals in the summer.

But in a town of fewer than 900 residents, the community was quick to pull together. Just days after residents began returning to town after the fire, an assistance center on the main street of town was up and running.

The center, in a converted old house, has quickly become a guiding light in a dark time — a resource for those impacted, a place to find help or even just a friendly hug and kind ear.

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Volunteers, including Justine Ramsay (right), at the drop-in center set up to help the Kangaroo Valley community after the bushfires hit.  Tess Orrick/CBS News

People come and go, dropping off food, furniture, clothes and whatever else they can to help those in need. Organizers, who are all volunteers, have created a database to pair residents in need with what others have to offer.

Justine Ramsay, one of the volunteers, said she came in one day to see what she could do and has been turning up every day since.

Many of those seeking help are local business owners who are unsure of how to navigate the plethora of forms required to receive government grants.

While the federal government's response to the bushfire crisis was at first criticized, several local business owners said officials are beginning to step up. The New South Wales state government has announced a multibillion-dollar tourism recovery package designed to help towns such as Kangaroo Valley.

Sam Rodden, a manager at the local pub, The Friendly Inn, said those first two weeks of January — in Australia's summer holiday period — would normally be the busiest of the year.

Powered by a generator, The Friendly Inn became a gathering spot for locals during the bushfire emergency. Rodden described the mood as solemn. Residents waited for the worst to pass, not knowing if their homes, businesses and livelihoods had been destroyed.

The pub, situated in the center of the town, is the literal heart of Kangaroo Valley. Now Rodden is looking ahead, planning a series of events designed to draw a crowd and hopefully use up some of those kegs he'd ordered for the high season that never arrived.

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Sam Rodden, manager of The Friendly Inn in Kangaroo Valley, has been planning a series of events to help bring back visitors to the town. Tess Orrick/CBS News

Dozens of bushfires continue to burn across Australia. But they are no longer a threat to Kangaroo Valley, and local business owners are trying to get the message out that they are still open.

Yet that's not the case for Katrina Endean. It's only been a few weeks since the fires ripped through the area, and Endean says she's still at a loss at what to do.

She was forced to lay off all 12 of her employees and says she'll now have to rebuild her company from scratch.

"It's a beautiful area and we will eventually rebuild," she said. "But only time will tell if it will ever be the same."

Kurt Menzel remains optimistic. He said he hopes to have his property rebuilt and ready to host weddings again by January 2021.

"People have been encouraging us to get back up and running and to not wait," he said, adding that he's had a lot of support from the local council. "So we've been moving at lightning speed to get back on track as soon as we can."

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The entrance to the Kangaroo Valley Bush Retreat in New South Wales, Australia, after the Currowan fire hit the property in January 2020. Tess Orrick/CBS News
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