Firefighter Chris Loeschenkohl, with daughter Hayley, joins the protest in Traralgon. Photo: Pat Scala
Morwell can be pretty in the morning, when a mist comes off the wetlands on the outskirts of town. It doesn't normally have a nicotine tinge to it, as it did on Saturday - and has done for almost three weeks - when mist and smoke hung together in an obscene embrace that brought a sting to the eye.
On the north side of town, where it is said the smoke doesn't hurt so much yet it still appears to hang as thickly as it does in the south, Chris Henry, 65, ambles along on a walking stick. Her intellectually disabled daughter, Michelle, 41, trudges behind with a blue dust mask covering her face. They are heading to the bus stop, off to get their hair cut.
''I tried the mask but I get too claustrophobic,'' says Ms Henry, who cares for her daughter and her daughter's husband, 48, who is also intellectually disabled, as well as asthmatic. He is busy mowing lawns for cash.
People Ms Henry's age on the south side were being advised by the state government to get out of town - and 800 households there were being offered a $1200-a-week relocation package. In the north, there are plenty of empty driveways, suggesting plenty of people have left of their own accord.
''The fact is, they get hit first when the smoke blows from the south, then it comes to us,'' Ms Henry says. ''And yeah, the only way to escape it is to go somewhere else, otherwise, this is it. But I'm not leaving my dog behind. And you need somewhere to go. I have no idea where that would be.''
In fairy tales, when a town is cursed by a witch, the curse is lifted momentarily now and then to taunt the residents and remind them of how life once was. So it is in Morwell, where a friendly wind comes through for a few hours and people open their doors and let their small children run around the yard. On Friday there was an easterly wind and a blue sky so clean it was startling.
''F---ing beautiful, wasn't it Frank?'' John Cukier, 65, says to his mate, Frank Rowan, 84, wearing a dust mask and watering the plants at the bowling club. Mr Rowan works at the club for a few hours each day and sees that as reason enough to stay put.
''Didn't have to wear the mask yesterday, but this morning … my eyes are full of f---ing dust,'' Mr Rowan says.
Over in Traralgon, where there's a hint of smoke in the air, half a dozen professional firefighters, one carrying a baby, delay the start of a press conference with Deputy Premier Peter Ryan by confronting bewildered journalists with emotive placards and statements such as, ''What am I going to tell my kids if I contract cancer later in life?''
One of the men, Paul Curran, says they're protesting against the state government's refusal to support a Greens-tabled bill that would automatically protect firefighters if they catch certain types of cancers late in their careers.
Meanwhile, upstairs at the incident control centre, Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley tells the media scrum the fire will continue to burn for at least another 10 days.
A local Department of Human Services official says 108 residents are being processed for relocation packages. Chief Health Officer Rosemary Lester repeats her advice from the previous day that people aged over 65, those of pre-school age, pregnant women, and people suffering from heart and respiratory conditions should leave town.
Mr Ryan announces an independent inquiry into the fire to ''answer all the questions that are being asked''. He also angrily defends Dr Lester, who has been criticised for waiting three weeks before advising vulnerable people to seek shelter elsewhere.
A few hours later, Dr Lester calls The Sunday Age in response to a question at the press conference about whether the particles being inhaled by residents are acidic.
Her answer? Yes, they are. The tiny PM 2.5 particles, she says, contain ammonium iron sulphates, chlorates and nitrates. ''It's the acidity that produces the irritation in the lung and exacerbation of respiratory and heart disease.''
She reiterates her advice that short-term exposure [weeks or months] caused short-term problems. ''There is not a lot of evidence that short-term exposure produces long-term effects.'' However, long-term exposure [years] can lead to diseases, including cancer.
Half an hour later, Dr Lester calls again. From day one, she says, she's put out alerts, held press conferences, attended community meetings, and had her messages circulated through community announcements and paid advertisements.
I ask why she's telling me this. She says: ''There seems to be a misunderstanding that we weren't doing anything for the first week or so.'' In that moment, Dr Lester sounds like another citizen of Morwell: trapped by a siege she doesn't fully understand.