By Kyra Gillespie
The sudden destruction of Gembrook’s iconic Ranges Hotel has sent shock waves through the small community, many of which have described the popular watering hole as the “heart” of the town.
Over a dozen fire fighting vehicles and around 50 firefighters responded to the blaze, which broke out around 6am on Monday 24 September.
Hotel owners Colin and Andrea Nippers were on-site and visibly distressed, surrounded by family and friends.
The pub was set to open early that morning to host the local football club’s ‘Mad Monday’ celebrations.
Mr Nippers said they came as soon as they heard the news.
The couple purchased the heritage-listed pub, which originally opened in 1896, after it sat dormant for over five years.
They began extensive renovations in February 2016, and the business took off upon opening 5 October later that year.
Hundreds and thousands of dollars were poured in to the pub’s resurrection, with works including a brand new kitchen, bar, beer lines and cool rooms.
The Nippers’ were also working on a brand new beer garden, which they’d hoped to open in summer this year.
Shocked onlookers mourned the loss of the pub, calling it the “heart” of the small country town.
“We’re just devastated,” Gembrook resident Paul Fry said.
“It really was the heart of the town.
“It was really exciting to see it open up again after all those years; it became a place to meet people and bump into old friends.”
“It was really a family hub, it’s so sad to see it gone,” wife Kathryn Fry added.
“The community will rally behind the Nippers family.”
One CFA volunteer and Gembrook resident echoed the sentiments of other residents, saying that once the pub re-opened, it was as though “the heart came back to Gembrook.”
“You can’t put a figure on the damage done to an old historical building like this. It’s priceless,” she said.
While the original veranda from the early 1900s remains intact, along with the front walls, the remainder of the building has all but been completely destroyed.
Windows have been shattered, the roof almost completely caved in and blackened debris covering the floors.
“This really does mark the end of an era,” Gembrook CFA Incident Controller Chris Pearsall said.
“The fire was well and truly going when we got here and had got up into the roof.
“The cause of the fire is still unknown, but we suspect it could have started in the laundry.”
CFA crew on site said the damage was so extensive that it would have to be entirely rebuilt.
Gembrook MP Brad Battin likened the pub’s destruction to “the death of an old friend.”
“The Ranges Hotel has proudly served and built and Gembrook community over many decades,” he said.
“Today’s loss will be felt by many. It’s a sad day for Gembrook, the staff at the hotel, the owners and the many community groups they support. Sounds like the death of an old friend; it will be remembered for more than the beer.
“Let’s hope they rebuild the walls and the spirit.”
Police are still determining the cause of the blaze.
“It’s really a waiting game,” Detective Senior Constable Butler from Cardinia CIU said.
“We’re still waiting for the pumpers to finish putting out the blaze, and then we’ll take it from there.”