It was a typical Summer’s day; a warm Saturday in January, ten years ago. The straw coloured hills surrounding Canberra, scorched by a long hot Summer and an even longer drought, glowed under a vibrant blue sky. In the air though, the smell of smoke was unmistakable, and the charred leaves floating to the ground throughout Canberra, served as an ominous warning of what was to come. By day’s end, the straw coloured hills were black. The picturesque native bush and pine forests were reduced to a desolate wasteland and suburban streets lay in ruins.
January 18th 2003, is a day forever etched in Canberra’s history; a day whose scars remain evident in the landscape and whose memory is still vivid for residents of the bush capital. Today marks the tenth anniversary of the disaster, ranked among the worst bushfire disasters in modern Australian history. A disaster that took four lives, almost 500 homes and infrastructure including the Mount Stromlo Observatory. The story of the disaster is one of nature’s violent potential, of human error and of the capacity for the environment and a community to rebuild.
On January 8th, lightning strikes sparked fires in remote parts of the rugged and picturesque Brindabella and Namadgi National Parks, to the West and South of Canberra. The fires were small and the conditions were calm. Rural property owners and researchers from the CSIRO monitored the largest of the fires at McIntyre’s Hut. They assumed it and the other fires would soon be put out, as did the firefighters who turned up to work that day, only be told they weren’t needed. Fire service managers had decided not to launch a response, believing the risk insignificant in the current weather conditions and the danger to firefighters too high. It was a fateful decision.
The fires were allowed to grow. Three days later, the first attempts were made to control the fire at McIntyre’s Hut by back burning to establish containment lines. Helicopters were called in to try and gain control. As January 18th drew nearer, the fires continued to grow. Standing in front of the National Library one afternoon, I could see the smoke in the distance. Around me, burnt leaves carried by the growing winds were falling to the ground. But like most Canberrans, I wasn’t concerned or apprehensive. The fires were distant and all the advice available at the time, assured us they posed no risk.
On January 17th, increasingly desperate attempts to contain the fires failed. A media release from emergency services, the gravity of which was lost at the time, announced that staging grounds for firefighters had been moved from areas of Namadgi, to suburban Canberra itself.
On the morning of January 18th, with the fires still 20km away from the city, firefighters were evacuated from the bushland areas to the west of Canberra. By afternoon, blue sky had been replaced by a dark haze. From home, I could see a long line of headlights stretching into the city from Tharwa and the rural settlements south of Canberra as residents were escorted by Police away from the growing danger. Their headlights were on because the sky was growing darker.
On Mount Stromlo, the ANU’s observatory, parts of which dated back to 1924, was abandoned as fire swept over the top of the mountain. While the visitors centre and some buildings survived, the observatory and its telescopes were destroyed.
In suburbs on the western edge of Canberra, fire brigade crews lined the streets, wetting down homes and bushland. Their expectation was to stop the fire on the grasslands bordering the suburbs. When the flames came over the hills, burning through mature pine plantations with flames leaping over 100ft into the air, that expectation began to fade.
By 3pm, the sky turned black; the darkness broken only by an immense red glow over the hills to the West of Canberra. On the radio, the memorable sound of the standard emergency warning signal (SEWS) came over the airwaves, a signal to be used only in the most dire of situations under law, accompanied by a message warning of a ‘significant deterioration’ in the fire situation.
A State of Emergency was declared, and authorities who had only recently said the risk of fires impacting the city was slim, were now warning it was all but inevitable.
“…the most severe test in the history of the ACT.”
ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope
“The extent of the fire is far beyond the capacity of the resources we’ve got.”
ACT Chief Fire Officer Peter Lucas Smith
In less than an hour, the fires had travelled 20km, striking the settlement of Uriara and suburbs of Duffy and Chapman. The complex of bushfires had merged into a single fire, described by experts as a ‘firestorm.’ Driven by hot weather and very strong winds, the fires had now grown so large that they created their own microclimate, with research later showing tornado like conditions at times. The trunks of pine trees that once stood straight, were left bent by the force of the fire, something that would inspire the design of the Canberra Bushfire Memorial. Roofs were blown off structures, and the sound, a dull roar, was remarkable even at a distance.
“The fire has broken across Warragamba into the houses over… I have flame height probably over 100 ft on Warragamba Drive, impacting houses.”
ACT Fire Brigade Radio
“…we’ve lost total visibility… I’ve got numerous houses alight here, get me some more help please.”
Fire Brigade Officer Darrell Thornthwaite
Emergency services were overwhelmed. To a fire on this scale, with such speed and ferocity, there was no possible response. Many residents fled impacted areas as the fires spread deeper into the city through green belts forming the Canberra Nature Park. Some residents remained behind, fighting an increasingly futile battle to save their homes and those of their neighbours, as water and electricity was lost. In a cruel irony, fire crews had to contend with their own vehicles failing, as burning embers caused engine filters in their trucks to ignite, hampering efforts in an already impossible situation. The image of a fire pumper, abandoned and on fire in a Duffy street remains one of the iconic images of that day.
By evening the fire front had passed through, streets were alight in multiple suburbs and fire crews regrouped, working to save whatever they still could.
The next morning, the fires had ceased their rampage and a grey haze hung over the capital. The scale of the disaster became apparent; newspapers and television running images from the air of whole streets gutted, and news that four lives had been lost, with hundreds more injured. At a local bakery, I saw a hastily scrawled sign on the window managing some humour while highlighting the gravity of the previous day’s events:
“We need our homes more than we need the dough.”
January 18th was a disaster on so many levels. Years of drought and the severe weather conditions on the day, created a fire event on an unprecedented and insurmountable scale. The decision to not extinguish the fires when they first started, all but assured a disaster would occur.
But the day and its aftermath are also an example of bravery and spirit overcoming the odds. As the fires burned into Canberra, blanketing the city in choking smoke, the crew of the Southcare rescue helicopter flew low to the ground in impossible conditions, guided by the street lights, to rescue people injured by the fire and take them to hospital. At Lanyon Homestead, a lone RFS tanker stood in the path of the flames, successfully defending the historic property. At Tidbinbilla Deep Space Tracking Station, which had back up power and had narrowly escape destruction in the fire’s path, staff supported neighbouring rural properties in the aftermath. Fire fighters from around the region came to help local crews overwhelmed, and exhausted. As the recovery began, Canberrans gave whatever they could, from bedding and clothing, to shelter and money, helping those left with nothing by the fires. At drop off points and charities, people lined up not to take, but to give.
Today, the hills to the West of Canberra still bare the scars of the fires, and the once lush pine plantations are for the most part gone. But the native bush has regenerated, the hills turning vibrant green as new growth emerged. In the suburbs, the recovery has taken time, but most of the homes have now been replaced. Firefighting practices and resources have been upgraded.
Canberra has not been a stranger to severe bushfires, with massive fires sweeping through the region in the 50s and 80s. The scars of those fires had remained on the landscape, but their stories had been forgotten. Complacency about the risk of bushfire had become common, even among those tasked with protecting the community from such threats. We must never forget disasters like that of January 18th; the mistakes made, the lessons learnt and all that was lost.