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One of the lucky ones

It took five firefighters seven hours to defend the home of Professor Debra Nestel.

The big white house and sprawling gardens at 400 Glendonald Road, Hazelwood South, back onto a pine plantation where, in February, a fire was allegedly lit that would grow and kill 21 people. This incident led to Glendonald Road becoming one of the epicentres of the Gippsland fires.

Professor Debra Nestel of the Gippsland Medical School lives at 400 Glendonald Road. She considers herself one of the road’s lucky ones, surviving with both life and home, neither blessings bestowed on her next-door neighbours.

“The fire crew said that as they drove down the road, all the animals were unning in the opposite direction... The appliance from Glengarry West was actually decommissioned after it had been at our house because it was so badly damaged,” she says.

The local strike team designated her property for protection during a reconnaissance on Black Saturday. Having evacuated on the Friday with her dog Bella, Professor Nestel did not know of her home’s fate until the following day, when a co-worker who agists cattle on Glendonald Road drove past and saw the house.

“Suddenly, this big grey house, which was previously a big white house, was visible from the road,” she says.

Later reunited by a journalist with three of the five fire-fighters from Glengarry West CFA who defended her house, she learnt the details of the day’s events.

“My CFA crew had been on the firefront but they were moved to asset protection at about 4:30pm because the firefront was not behaving as expected,” she says.

“One of them jumped off the appliance to turn off the mains power while the appliance was parked by the underground water tank. By the time he got around to the mains electricity, the fire was upon them. There was one man in the appliance, and one in the shed attached to my house and we just don’t know how he survived. He’s been back to the house several times and it was obviously a deeply disturbing experience for him. The other three were caught outside and they couldn’t get back to the appliance to get an axe because they were caught in the fire.”

Those three broke into the swimming pool enclosure, and then into the house.

“They covered themselves in carpets to stop the radiant heat damage. The firefront took about five minutes to pass over and then after that they defended the property for what they think was about seven hours.”

Professor Nestel feels awed by the community commitment among the firefighters, who all live and work in the local area, and remains optimistic about rebuilding. She has since turned her mind to rectifying broken windows, damage by smoke and ash water, and fixing gutters, downpipes and parts of the roof.

“I didn’t realise how important it was for me to see my house,” says Professor Nestel of the emotional impact. Her parents lost their home during the Ash Wednesday bushfires in 1983, and for the moment, her father refuses to visit Glendonald Road.

“I suppose that the intensity of the loss is so great for him…The impact is demonstrated in all sorts of weird ways.”