An estimated 400 homes destroyed, many more damaged
Power to 25% of the Australian Capital Territory gone.
Four people confirmed dead....   This number was three when I began writing this...
For the last week or so, fires have been burning in the Snowy Mountains, Australia's winter playground. Terrain that has not seen fire for many years, has been blazing in a line reaching from Canberra to Victoria (for those of you not familiar with my country, we're talking a few hundred kilometers).
Last week, I'd get up in the morning, go out the back, and look at the plume of smoke rising in the distance, as these fires raged out of control. This is some of the most rugged terrain in the country, there was nothing that could be done to fight the fires in most places - even waterbombing helicopters were useless - after all, you need to be able to see the fire through the smoke to be able to do anything even vaguely effective.
For a few days last week, the wind direction changed, so that the smoke from these fires was blown over Canberra, blanketing the city with smoke. This was really the first indication to most people of the severity of the fires burning, how huge they really were. Still, I know that I still felt safe, I didn't sense any panic from people I spoke to. The fires were still distant, the danger still remote. The 'wow' factor was there, the thought that the city itself was in danger wasn't.
Yesterday, the 18th of January, 2003, that all changed.
I'm sitting online, browsing through e2 (of course!!). I'd been typing, then realised that it was becoming difficult to see the keyboard keys. I look outside, and realise how dim it is - the smoke is getting much thicker, almost obscuring the sun. Outside, there's an eerie orange light, as the sun struggles to shine through the smoke. I head back inside, and turn on the light.
I'm still browsing e2, and haven't looked outside for a while. For some reason, I do. I wasn't expecting to see what I did...the only words that managed to escape my lips, directed towards my housemate, sitting reading in the lounge room: "Holy fuck..."
Day has turned into night. The streetlights have come on, and cars are forced to drive with headlights on. The sun won't set for another 4 hours or so..
I decide to drive to a higher vantage point, so I can see what's going on. So I head up the base of a mountain near my home, where I know I'll be able to see the mountain range that runs down Canberra's western flank. I'm not the only one there - many people are looking to see just what's going on. When I get up there, I can barely believe what I'm seeing. Fire has come over the top of the mountains, and is flowing downwards, ever closer to the city. Burnt debris is falling everywhere - not just leaves, but bark, at least 30cm long, is being deposited kilometers from the fire front. Plumes of fire are shooting into the air - the flares look massive from where I'm standing, at least 10km away.
Imagine, an image of a solar flare, stretching out into space. It seems so massive, as you wonder what type of force could create something containing so much energy, so much force. Yesterday, I witnessed solar flare type flame, heading towards my city.
After taking some photos, which I don't think will turn out so well in the dim light, with the fires getting closer all the time, I decide it's time to head back home. Back in the car, I head down the hill. A couple of minutes later, I look back towards the mountain I've been standing at the base of. It's on fire.
Time loses meaning right now...
I get home, and my housemate's telling me that our suburb is in extreme danger. Residents are being advised to fill gutters with water, remove fuel from the premises, fill bathtubs with water, soak towels to stuff under the cracks underneath doors. And I can't believe this is happening here. Not that long ago, I wrote something here - Protecting your home from bushfire. I didn't ever in my wildest dreams believe that I'd need to use this information at the house I live in now. Not in the midst of suburbia - its people who live in the bush fringes who need to worry about that type of thing, isn't it? Apparently, the answer is a resounding no.
And the next hour or so is a flurry of filled bathtubs, downpipes blocked and gutters filled, rubbish moved from around the house, sprinkler systems turned on for the first time in months (to top it off, there's a drought, and water restrictions apply...just not now), curtains pulled down, and hosing down the house of the old lady who lives just behind ours. All the time, debris falls...burnt leaves, bark, ash everywhere, that stings your eyes, and sometimes makes it difficult to breathe. Standing under the pergola out the back, it sounds as though it's raining. About this time, the electricity goes out...
We're out on the street, talking to neighbors that we rarely see, sharing this experience, and any information that we have, when I see the most incredible sight. There's a hill a kilometer or so from out house, mainly grassland, and scattered trees. You often see Kangaroos grazing on its slopes, leading down to a line of large houses, at its base. And it's burning.
Imagine if you could fill a bucket with fire. And you carried that bucket to the side of a grassy, dry hill. Draw that bucket back, and toss its contents across the hill's side. Watch as that fire flew across the hill, seemingly faster that is possible. This is how the fire spread across this hill. The speed of the fire spreading is something that I will never forget...something that I would not have credited as possible, had I not seen it myself.
Later that night
We survived. Houses in my part of Kambah have managed to survive...although many homes in my suburb have been destroyed. The entire mountain range is burning, spreading all the way to the city. It is the most incredible thing I have ever seen... Spots of red, surrounded by pools of black. Trees glowing, for kilometers in all directions. Standing on the roof of a friend's house, I can turn 360 degrees, and see fires burning in almost all directions.
I wake early today, to a city covered in smoke. Things are much calmer, and it's time to assess the situation, and consolidate. Fire crews are creating a fire break, stretching around the entire ACT. Smoke fills the air, and the sound of helicopters is almost constant - either carrying out spotting duties, or waterbombing. Police have the opportunity to enter the suburbs that have been hardest hit, and see just what is left. In some suburbs, it's not very much. Entire streets have been wiped out, nothing but ash remains.
So far today, another two bodies have been found.
Canberra's sewerage system is out - by tomorrow afternoon, the holding pond will be full, and effluent will overflow into a river system. Electricity is coming back slowly - power came back here a couple of hours ago, after more than 24 hours out. It could be days before it's restored in some areas.
It has been estimated that Canberra would have needed over 800 fire tankers to adequately deal with this fire. Canberra has 12. Most of the fire fighting has been carried out by residents, armed with garden hoses and buckets. Many firefighters are saying that they have never seen a fire like this.
This is without a doubt the worst fire in Canberra's history. Many are saying that this is the worst bushfire ever seen in Australia. It's the only one I've ever been in the middle of - I can't imagine that it could be much worse than this. 350,000 people call this city home...I've not spoken to anyone who doesn't know someone who has lost their home.
Today has been a day of relative calm. Tomorrow is forecast for a top of 37oC (close to 100oF), and the danger is by no means past.
21 January, 2003 - Yesterday was another day of calm. Temperatures were kept down - ironically, the amount of smoke covering the ACT has become our saviour, as the sun's impact is muted. Winds were almost non-existant, and fire crews were able to build containment lines. Some areas that are still at risk have had a four lane highway sized firebreak bulldozed around them.
Today, suburbs in Canberra's North-West are on alert once again - strong winds are again predicted, and the temperature is supposed to reach 35oC. Once again, we sit, and hope that the predictions prove to be wrong..