“It definitely felt like winter at some points in January.”
The plight of businesses in bushfire-affected areas has been well-publicised over the past summer, especially on the NSW South Coast, where the worst of the fires coincided with the region’s busiest season, but you’ve got to feel for the boys at Offshore Surf in Moruya and Broulee. Not only did they face the raw human shock of seeing their part of the world burned beyond recognition, not only did they confront the stark economic realities the fires brought with them, but they also did it all within the first few months of taking over the business.
“It’s insane,” says Brett Muskett, or Bretto as he’s known in the tight-knit community. “You couldn’t make it up.”
What made it exponentially worse was the bastard timing of the fires, which struck in the lead up to three vitally important occasions in the retail year.
After buying the business in August, Bretto and fellow long-time employee Ned Cootes were looking forward to experiencing the full benefits of the tourist boom the place enjoyed each summer. With Broulee one of the closest beachside communities to the Nation’s capital and Moruya its bigger and increasingly trendy country cousin, the area has always been well-placed to receive a healthy economic injection from cashed-up holidaymakers in exchange for a few weeks of chaos on the local roads and in the surf.
“December-January you take half your year’s trade in two months,” says Bretto.
But when the Currowan fire and a blaze in Braidwood combined to shut both the Princes Highway and the Kings Highway just a few weeks out from Christmas, those figures were already going to take a hit.
Bretto says a good bit of local business in the lead up to Christmas kept things ticking over, but when the Clyde Mountain Fire hit the place on New Year’s Eve like the coming of the apocalypse, the prospects of running a business went from tough to near impossible.
Without power, the Broulee store was closed for a week. In Moruya, where widespread panic had broken out as basic commodities became scarce and people tried desperately to flee the area before the next catastrophic fire danger day arrived, some of the people coming through the doors had lost everything.
Bretto says it was what the fires did to the community itself, more than his business, that was most shocking.
“It was like people were walking around in a daze,” he says. “It was like someone had turned the sound down.”
With the road to Canberra closed throughout the first few weeks of 2020, what transpired was an achingly slow January. There were little wins, like those who made the effort to go the long way home in the aftermath of the New Year’s Eve fires, stopping by to support small businesses like Offshore; or Turia Pitt’s Spend With Them Instagram campaign, which helped drive some business.
Another fire in Moruya on January 23 brought more fear and destruction, but Bretto reckoned a semblance of normality was finally returning.
“This long weekend showed signs of hope,” he says. “It’s actually been quite busy. I was definitely surprised that so many people still came down.”
With the Kings Highway reopened and traffic from Canberra once again flowing in, the tourists are not only bringing their trade, they’re bringing a real sense of awareness about the need to spend in the area.
“Canberra people have strong ties to the coast,” Bretto says. “They’re conscious of the fact they need to spend. They’re making conscious decisions to buy their school backpacks and stuff down here.”
As for Offshore and the fact he and his partner have just faced ten summers’ worth of bad luck in their first season, he’s surprisingly upbeat.
“We’ll be right,” he says. “I feel like if a business can survive something like this then it shows it’s a pretty good business.”