'We've got houses alight....I need pumpers here NOW!'
'The brakes on the fucking truck are gone, I'm operating on the handbrake alone...what do you want me to do?'
'Choose a house, and try to put it out...'
'Come on, get in! What are you going to do mate?'
Snippets of (paraphrased) radio chatter, recorded by a television cameraman in the back seat of a Fire Brigade 4WD, as it drives through hell. Embers are flowing like water across the road, it's like driving through a raging river of fire. The sense is of a car full of men, completely overwhelmed...completely terrified. The last statement, yelled to an elderly man, wandering the streets in a daze. Every house behind him is a raging inferno...one of them is likely his own.
The 18th of January, 2003 is a day that will forever live in Canberra's history. It is the day that this sleepy Bush Capital was thrust into the headlines of national and world news, and the worst single day bush fire in Australia's history roared into the city, and laid waste to anything and everything in its path.
Canberra will likely never be the same again.
On the 8th of January, 2003 a fierce thunderstorm swept through the Snowy Mountains, and the Brindabella mountain range, outside of Canberra. Fires were sparked by the many lightning strikes, growing quickly in the drought ravaged terrain. Australia is in the grip of one of the worst droughts in the nation's history - in New South Wales, 99% of the State is drought declared. The ACT is situated within NSW, and it is also completely drought declared. The ground is bone dry, there is absolutely no moisture in the vegetation. It takes no more than a spark to ignite a fire in these conditions, and a fire will grow with frightening speed and intensity. These lightning strikes were more than enough to ignite healthy bushfires.
The fires that broke out were considered moderate in intensity, but were definitely a concern. Soon after they started, there were fires burning from the boundary of the ACT, south to the Victorian border, spread out over many hundreds of kilometers. Firefighters faced an extremely difficult task tackling them, mainly due to the remoteness of their location. The mountains they were burning in are some of the most rugged and inaccessible in the country. Much of the land is wilderness, and has no human habitation. Fire trails are not numerous in many areas, and it was simply impossible to fight some of these fires at all. All through this time, concern was for alpine communities, such as Thredbo, and the townships in its area. Firefighting efforts were mainly restricted to attempting to build firebreaks, in an attempt to halt the fire's progress. However, due to the nature of the terrain, heavy bulldozing equipment was unable to enter many areas, reducing the ability to create effective breaks. Back burning was often the only usable technique to create breaks, and the fires continued to grow in size, and intensity.
Slowly, these fires progressed to the west, burning towards Canberra.
From around the 13th of January, 2003, the fires continued their progress towards the city, and smoke invaded Canberra. For days, the mornings would be reasonably clear, followed by smoke drifting into the city during the day. And it was extremely hot - temperatures well above 30oC every day, making it a very uncomfortable place to be. The smell was very strong, and it became obvious that these fires were drawing closer. Still, there was not a high level of concern amongst the city's residents. There was certainly no hint that these fires could directly impact on Canberra, no warnings that there was danger.
I can't speak for the population at large, but in my mind, I believed that the terrain surrounding the city was its best defence. The mountain ranges finish a good distance from the city's fringe, before changing to grassland, scattered with trees. In some areas, such as the hardest hit area of Weston Creek, the bushland merges with pine plantations, which continue up to the edge of the suburbs. I had always believed that the wide grassland area would form a sort of firebreak - while it can certainly burn (and it did), the lack of dense bushland would reduce the intensity of any fire, allowing firefighters to tackle it before it became a serious threat.
As it turns out, the lack of a grassland break in the Weston Creek area was a fatal chink in Canberra's armour.
Australia - The Flammable Country
Australia's bush is extremely flammable. In the scrub, the trees are eucalypts, towering gum trees dominate the landscape. The leaves of these trees contain eucalyptus oil - an extremely flammable substance. Australia's landscape has evolved to burn - indeed, many of the plants rely on bushfire to reproduce. The seedpods of these plants will not split until subjected to extreme heat - after a fire has passed through, they are able to germinate, and grow into new plants. Of course, when the trees surrounding are virtually ticking time bombs, fire is eventually going to happen. And when it does, it can be some of the most intense fire you could imagine. Many bushfires in Australia are crowning fires - the oil in leaves at the tree crowns is heated to such a temperature, that it can spontaneously ignite with explosive force. In this way, fires are able to spread from tree to tree with frightening speed. A fire of this magnitude is virtually impossible to halt.
January 18, 2003 - Hell
This Saturday dawned with a fair degree of normality in Canberra. Certainly, there was little hint of the events to unfold. People were going about their normal Saturday routine - there was a lot of smoke in the air, but we'd become used to that by this stage. News reports were speaking of the fire approaching Canberra, however even at this stage officials believed that the danger to Canberra itself was slim.
In the early afternoon, everything changed.
The weather conditions combined to create absolutely perfect conditions for a firestorm. The temperature was very high - around 37oC. Winds in the city were gusting to around 65km/h - the fire front was being pushed by winds of around 100km/h. Humidity was extremely low, under 10%. The fuel the fire was approaching was tinder dry. Nothing was going to halt its progress, short of drenching rain. The chances of that suddenly happening were completely non-existent.
What followed next, I've noded under a daylog on the day following the fire - January 19, 2003. These are mainly my personal recollections however, and in the days following, I've been able to get a broader picture of events as they unfolded.
Fire approached Canberra along its entire western flank, roaring out of the Brindabella Mountains, and crossing the grasslands with amazing speed. In the Weston Creek area, the fire went through the Stromlo forest, and smashed into the suburbs of Holder, Duffy and Chapman. Duffy was particularly vulnerable, as many of its houses face the pine plantations. The fire in this area was not reduced in intensity by having to cross low fuel grasslands, and hit the suburb with its full fury and power. The fire which destroyed the Mount Stromlo Observatory is estimated to have been burning at over 1,000oC - in some areas, sand on the ground was turned into glass in the fire's wake.
Residents of Duffy had no chance whatsoever. Coupled with the small amount of warning they had, meaning they were unable to adequately prepare their homes, was the situation of the suburb standing in the face of an unstoppable firestorm. Residents were forced to flee in droves - if it wasn't for the planned nature of Canberra's road system, many people may not have been able to make it out in time. Three of the four people who lost their lives were in this suburb, either choosing to stay and defend their homes, or not being able to get out in time.
For the most part, residents in many parts of Canberra were forced to fight the flames with no assistance from firefighting crews, themselves hopelessly outgunned by the force of this fire. Fire tankers who were in the most intense fire areas were helpless to make a dent in the flames. At least one tanker was lost when it caught fire itself.
For the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, residents and firefighters were fighting desperately to save property and lives. The fire was constantly moving onwards, threatening new areas, burning down more homes. Sirens were thick in the air, power was down to at least one quarter of Canberra homes. The afternoon and evening was spent around battery powered radios, listening to constant updates, the latest situation being out of date before it had even hit the newsreader's desk. Thousands of people were crammed into hastily formed evacuation centers, roads were closed city wide, people encouraged to stay in their homes.
The false sunset of early afternoon faded, before brightness returned for a few hours. As the sun set for the second time in one day, a sense of shock and disbelief descended along with it.
Canberra is a community
We should expect the best and the worst from mankind, as from the weather. - Marquis de Vauvenargues
What follows the shocking events of Saturday, January 18, 2003 are stories of hope, despair, courage, and a deep sense of community, such as I have never experienced before. Canberra went into a state of shock following the dying down of the flames, however it and its people were able to rouse themselves, and rally together to assist those who had suffered. It wasn't long before evacuation centers were flooded with donations - so much so that they were overwhelmed with the amount coming in. People opened their homes to complete strangers, allowing them to stay with them. During the crisis, and in the hours following it, people spilled out onto the streets, speaking to neighbours they may never have spoken to - in the affected areas, neighbours rallied together to defend not only their own homes, but the homes of people they barely knew.
In the days following, the all too common attitude of 'that's someone else's problem' melted away - if someone was in a position to help someone else, they did it. Radio stations dropped their usual ban on any personal messages going across the airwaves, and passed on pleas for someone's son, wife, father to please get in touch. If you were affected in any way, you weren't expected to show up at work on Monday. Once supermarkets reopened on Sunday morning, nobody complained about having to wait in long lines, as everyone rushed to stock up on essentials, such as batteries, clean drinking water.
Board games that had sat in dusty closets were pulled out, and played by candlelight on a Saturday night with no power.
Canberra is often criticised in Australia as being a sterile, Public Service city. As the seat of Government in Australia, criticism of the Government is often leveled at 'Canberra'. At times it seems that the population of the country at large believe that those who choose to live here, who choose to call this beautiful city home, are a breed apart from ordinary Australians, that we're somehow different.
Canberra has often been described as a 'City without a heart'.
Over the last few days, Canberra's heart has been beating with a volume felt the world around.
It's a shame that the ugly side of human nature rears its head at times like this as well. Profiteers, trying to make a buck with inflated prices on suddenly valuable items. Looters. People ringing in to spill their ugly souls to those who are trying to help.
Lets just hope that the beautiful side manages to outshine the ugly.
In the aftermath of any disaster on this scale, people inevitably begin to ask 'why?' Unfortunately, this process has started already. Shocked people start to question why residents were forced to battle the flames with no support, begin to ask why firebreaks weren't created earlier, ask why a pine plantation was allowed to grow right to the edge of a suburb. As always, there is more than one side to any story. Of course, questions will be asked - indeed, questions need to be answered. At the very least, the loss of four lives will lead to a massive Coronial Inquest, where all the contributing factors leading to loss of life will be examined. However, at this stage, many people including elected officials, Union officials, and the public at large are asking these questions.
Criticism has been leveled at the lack of fire fighting personnel when the flames hit - asking why there were so few available to fight such a large fire. Criticism has been leveled at the lack of hazard reduction in the bushland and forests. Members of Government are bickering - one makes rash comments, trying to lay blame for the tragedy somewhere. Others are livid that at a time like this, anyone could be involved in apparent political point scoring. Members of the public who were in the front line are bitterly defending the efforts of firefighters, ridiculing any suggestion that their efforts were anything less than superhuman.
Realistically, this will continue for some time. It will most likely turn out that mistakes were made, that the decisions of some people were - with hindsight - not perfect. It's likely that some resources were not managed as effectively as they could have been. When I think of this however, I think back to the voice of a firefighter, riding along burning roads in a 4WD, and remember the constant reports coming in over the radio. They were voices of firefighters who were scared. They were getting into trouble. They had entered hell on earth. And in the middle of that, a man is expected to lead, to make decisions that could impact on the lives of not only his men, but people trying to save their homes...or escape them
Finally, there is one overwhelming aspect to the disaster of Canberra's bushfires. These fires were unlike any ever seen before. Ever.
Scientists at the CSIRO study fire behavior, and they are being forced to rethink many of the things they have learnt about the nature of bushfire. The combination of circumstances that drove this fire, is the stuff of nightmares. Drought - the worst in 100 or more years. Extreme heat. 100km/h winds. Extreme low humidity. If you could write a recipe for the perfect fire, it would have these ingredients. In fact, scientists have labeled it the perfect fire. And time and time again, they are saying 'Nothing could have stopped this fire. Nothing.'
I believe this fact needs to be kept in clear sight when enquiries into the events of Saturday are carried out. The normal rules simply didn't apply on that day. Sometimes, nature, in all its terrible fury, is something that simply cannot be touched by humans.
All you can do is hope, and pray. Then build again.
The ACT Government now believes the number of houses destroyed has reached 530.. They are faced with building kit homes to house many of these homeless people - the ACT does not have enough rental accommodation to house them all..
March, 2003 - Since the January bushfires, sweet rain has fallen over large parts of Australia. Canberra has seen decent rain for the first time in at least a year. Following this, the regeneration of the charred land has been a beautiful thing to watch. Green grass has sprung up, covering the black earth. Burnt gum trees are sprouting new growth - the new growth is so dense at times, that from a distance you would swear a black trunk had become covered by moss.
There is still a long way to go - in all, over 2,500,000 hectares of bushland and National Park were destroyed, and in places the trees look like nothing more than twigs reaching for the sky. Many of these trees may be too badly burnt to recover, even given the remarkable ability of Australia's Gum trees to deal with fire. It may take decades for the scars from January, 2003 to disappear completely.