"There was a real sense of panic around the town. At the local shops you could see the concern on people’s faces, you could tell something out of the ordinary was happening."
Bairnsdale local and Melbourne Storm membership officer Alex Kater described the sense of foreboding in his home town in mid-December as bushfires ravaged East Gippsland.
"On the roads everyone was in such a rush - people were driving with massive water tanks on the back of their utes, preparing for the worst."
Fires would continue to burn across Victoria for the next two months, destroying nearly 1 million hectares of land during an unprecedented bushfire season.
In neighbouring New South Wales, an estimated five million hectares of land was burned.
Melbourne Storm players experienced the devastation first-hand on the weekend, visiting fire-affected communities in both states to help locals begin to rebuild.
Christian Welch, Felise Kaufusi, Kelma Tuilagi, Isaac Lumelume and skipper Cameron Smith travelled to East Gippsland, while Ryan Papenhuyzen, Dale Finucane, Tui Kamikamica and Aaron Pene spent two days in New South Wales' Bega Valley.
The club's bushfire relief initiative was part of the wider NRL Road to Regions program, designed to give rural rugby league fans an opportunity to meet players.
The program was expanded this year in response to the bushfire crisis.
Smith, Welch, Kaufusi, Tuilagi and Lumelume arrived in Bairnsdale on Friday night, where they were welcomed by an enthusiastic crowd at the Bairnsdale Football and Netball Club.
Following two hours of cross-code activities and plenty of laughs, the skipper proved he was as handy with a Sherrin as he is a Steeden, slotting a 45m kick from the boundary.
Welchy had confidently wagered that his captain was "no chance" and his doubt earned him a 200m sprint.
The group enjoyed a pub feed at Metung Hotel where they shared a beer with CFA and Ambulance Victoria volunteers.
"The resilience of these guys is pretty incredible," Smith said.
"After everything these people have been through and everything they've lost, they still wanted to know how our training was going."Cameron Smith
"They are so positive and optimistic. They wanted to have a chat about footy and get on with life."
Early on Saturday morning players arrived at Sarsfield Cricket Ground for a debrief with Tradies for Fire Relief and Seaford Football Club volunteers.
The group of close to 100 volunteers travelled to the fire-ravaged property of Bob and Virginia King, where their home was the only structure left standing.
The group spent the morning walking through blackened paddocks, removing hundreds of metres of destroyed fencing.
Following lunch at the cricket club, Storm players visited another charred property in Sarsfield where they cleared the remains of sheds, fences and trees in two hours.
Meanwhile on Saturday, a group of players met locals and BlazeAid volunteers in Quamma, New South Wales, near Finucane's hometown of Bega.
The group removed fencing at Mark Love's blackened property before delivering a skills clinic for 120 juniors at Tathra Sea Eagles.
They played barefoot bowls with locals at Tathra Beach Bowling Club and shared dinner with VRA and SLSC volunteers.
On Sunday the group ate breakfast with BlazeAid volunteers before installing a kilometre of fencing at Salway dairy farm and dropping in at the Cobargo Amateur Swimming Club for the annual Business House Relay and Splash for Cash fundraisers.
Papenhuyzen and Finucane qualified for the relay final, recording an impressive 31.23 and 33.08 seconds respectively and edging out Pene (35.24 seconds) and Kamikamica (36.87 seconds).
Paps went on to win in his race by less than a second and will have his name engraved on the Noa Jessop Trophy.
The trophy was named after 10-year-old Noa Jessop, who suffered fatal head injuries when he was hit by a car in 2016.
Noa was a Melbourne Storm fan and played at fullback for the Bega Roosters under 10s. Paps was presented with the trophy by Noa's parents Anne and Brett.
Christian Welch encouraged Victorians to visit fire-affected communities in East Gippsland.
"It was a special few days in Gippsland meeting and thanking the real heroes; the volunteers, firefighters and paramedics."Christian Welch
"We loved our time here and I urge everyone to spend a weekend here - volunteer or spend your money at local businesses."