Canberra fires: A decade on

Residents and friend of those living in Hawkesbury Crescent in Farrer battle (successfully) to stop the raging fire coming down the hill and destroying homes. Photo: Andrew Campbell
Residents and friend of those living in Hawkesbury Crescent in Farrer battle (successfully) to stop the raging fire coming down the hill and destroying homes. Photo: Andrew Campbell

It was their worst day. Their blackest day. The day fire, smoke and ash blocked the sun and hurled Canberra into a nightmare that some still struggle with a decade later. But it was more than that.

The January 18 firestorm in 2003 also revealed to a nation a Canberra that was less about the stereotype of pampered politician and public servant and more about a bloke in a t-shirt and stubbies on a roof with a hose trying, usually in vain, to save his home from the might of an inferno. 

There were images, too, in the days that followed, of residents sifting through the rubble of homes; neighbours embracing in ruined streets; blackened firefighters exhausted by the battle.

They are scenes repeated all too routinely almost every summer in Australia, most recently this month in Tasmania and NSW. The firestorm proved it could happen to Canberra too.

As the ACT Government’s director of communications, Jeremy Lasek, who also lost his Chapman home in the firestorm, said: “Certainly at the time, there was recognition across the nation that Canberra was a real city. And I think a lot of people before didn’t recognise that. It was a real city with real people and real people who can hurt’’.

Faces of the fire

Interactive: Faces of the fire

Coroner Maria Doogan in her report called the firestorm a ‘‘tragedy of momentous proportion’’.

Four people died. A total of 435 people were injured. A total of 487 homes were destroyed. Twenty-three commercial and government premises were wiped out. Another 215 homes, commercial premises and government buildings were damaged. The Mount Stromlo Observatory was destroyed. Countless animals died including an estimated 4000 sheep. Almost 70 per cent of the ACT - 157,170 hectares - was burnt. The financial loss was at least $610 million.

The four people who died were Dorothy McGrath, 77; Alison Tener, 38; Doug Fraser, 61 and Peter Brooke, 73.

David Tener was married to Alison. Their sons, then boys, are now young men - Adam is 24; Jason 22 and Simon, 19. She is never far from their thoughts. Although, Mr Tener said they were ‘‘much happier than even five years ago’’.

‘‘It’s like an injury,’’ he said. ‘‘You have an open wound, it heals, but you still have the scar. It never really goes away.’’

Among the most shocking aspects of the firestorm was that it went deep into the suburbs. Despite Canberra’s Bush Capital tag, the homes weren’t on secluded bush blocks in the back of beyond but in middle-class, comfortable suburbia, albeit on the western flank of the ACT that had historically been exposed to fire.

That infamous vision by Channel Nine cameraman Richard Moran as he hurtled through the flames and embers of Duffy in a fire truck with ACT Fire Brigade officer Darryl Thornthwaite remains a harrowing ride a decade later. What makes the heart ache most, perhaps, is the sight of the stunned older man in shorts and t-shirt leaping into the truck - clutching a saucepan. A saucepan that was probably used to ladle water on to the fire. A saucepan that was a potent symbol of the uselessness of much of the fire fight and the lack preparedness by the community.

It was a situation generated by the lack of explicit warnings from authorities, a community made complacent about the threat and the sheer might and fury of the firestorm, created by the combination of blazes as the McIntyre’s Hut fire crossed the often-bureaucratic border between the ACT and NSW, joined the local fires and became unstoppable. A state of emergency was declared at 2.45pm. Houses in Duffy were alight 15 minutes later.

Even with the passage of time and knowledge that virtually every year a community will experience the devastating reality that is a bushfire in Australia, it does not take much to scratch the surface and reveal a well of emotion attached to the firestorm.

And that has as much to do with the kindness of strangers at the time as the immense trauma of the day. More than $9 million was donated to the Bushfire Appeal. Residents who lost their houses still talk of the quilts that were lovingly made for them. The Recovery Centre in Lyons was inundated with donations from the community. Companies donated everything from phones to beds to televisions. And even New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani visited.

Geoff Pryor’s cartoon in the The Canberra Times  two days after the firestorm said it all. People were streaming into an evacuation centre with mattresses and other donated goods, literally putting to bed that infamous and plainly not true Canberra putdown  ‘‘City Without a Soul’’. Pryor later explained it was inspired by what he’d see on the night of the firestorm at an evacuation centre at Narrabundah College.

‘‘I was just amazed and astounded at the people just streaming in carrying mattresses, blankets and bottled water - everything they could manage. This was such a counter impression to what people were saying about the city,’’ he said. And some harsh things were being said, led by the now late columnist P.P. McGuinness who in the days after the firestorm suggested the ACT be abolished and absorbed into the NSW, for residents were simply paying the price of an  ‘‘artificially sponsored belief among Canberra residents that they could work in highly-paid, urban conditions while enjoying the benefits of a semi-rural, or at least fringe bush, lifestyle’’.

While the authorities maintain they are now better prepared for fires, the community is undoubtedly more attuned to any hint of smoke or flame. We have the big yellow trailers of the Community Fire Units in driveways of homes on the urban fringe. But we also have a sense of vulnerability that perhaps wasn’t there before the firestorm. We are unnerved by the soaring temperatures and gusting winds. We are chilled by the sight of surrounding hills turning from green to washed-out yellow. When a smoke haze hung over Canberra last week from fires in NSW, there were 8000 hits to the ACT Emergency Services Agency website in just one hour.

The rebuilding is almost complete. The Environment and Sustainable Development Directorate says of the 374 privately-owned urban homes destroyed, 11 sites were still being developed at the start of 2012. Two rebuilt homes have since been issued with certificates of occupancy. Two are expected to be completed by ‘‘early 2013’’. Another four are expected to be finished over the next year. The final three properties  ‘‘have additional complications that ESDD is working through at this time’’.

The human recovery is more fraught. Ten years on, people continue to have different attitudes, different reactions to the firestorm. And that’s probably what being a human city is all about.


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