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Nellie Melba

Bert's fight to survive brutal blaze

Written by Margot Taylor
on January 22, 2020

After spending nearly 30 years gliding all over Australia the last way Nellie Melba Retirement Village resident Bert Keurntjes imagined a maintenance day in his hanger would end was battling “a wild animal”.

Like thousands of others in Australia this summer, the “animal” that came so close to getting Bert, was a fire.

Three weeks after the grass fire that burnt his nose and ears, totally melted the noise blanket under his car, and left his family airfield in Nagambie (140km from Melbourne) a carpet of blackened grass, the cause of the blaze remains unknown.

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Bert says there are two possibilities: Sparks from the exhaust winch of a glider, or friction from a glider cable in the grass.

What he does know is, “I was literally fighting for my own survival”.

Before Bert even knew about the fire, the east side of the 800m wide runway, which is near the Goulburn Valley Freeway and the Shepparton train line, was well ablaze.

“I heard, ‘Bert, we’ve got a fire’.

“I panicked, I couldn’t get the trailer on the car.

“I lost a lot of time.

“So, when I finally got there the flames were nearly two or three feet high, and that was overwhelming.”

Armed with a hose, Bert raced to contain the fire on his side as bales of hay exploded around him and other gliding club members fought it on the other side of the runway.

“It felt like the fire was a wild animal trying to get me.

“I dodged it by one or two seconds.

“Physically, the body wouldn’t have taken more.”

IMG_0214The scorched airfield.

The gliding club’s fight was aided by a neighbouring farmer who arrived with a vehicle carrying equipment that could spray water 15m wide, the CFA, and a water bomber helicopter.

Bert says he was shocked by how fast the flames moved.

“By the time I got back to the car, the flames were already under it.”

He says he didn’t have time to fear for his life, but “all of that came after”.

“The heat was so intense it changed the shape of one of my car door handles, and 700m of fencing wire was burned to the point you could just snap it,” he says.

It was only hours after the blaze was extinguished, and the adrenaline gone, that his body “really started to hurt”.

“I could feel I was almost sunburnt, and inside my nose it was very hard.”

Despite the burns, Bert and three other gliding club members stayed up all night to ensure the fire didn’t reignite on what had been declared a total fire ban day.

The fire claimed grass, about 40 bales of hay and “a couple of snakes”.

But the 24 aircraft, and more importantly, club members, were largely physically unscathed.

Bert says the terrifying incident has given him a new appreciation for the power of fire.

“Now I know what the brigade guys have got to do.”

Despite giving up gliding nine months ago, the fire has not put Bert off his passion for the gliding club.

“I thought I’ve had a fair shot, and I’ll call it quits.

“But I love the club and I’m still out here, and up in the air with someone else, most days.”

The club is reviewing how best to respond to a fire, and what additional equipment they can use, Bert says.

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