A City Burns - Canberra Fire 2003
January is Hot
The Australian summer was in full swing when it happened. January 18th, 2003, was very hot and extremely windy. For days the residents of Canberra were watching the smoke in the Namadgi National Park as the fire crept closer to the city.
Over 160 fires were set alight in the remote Brindabella ranges, to the west of the ACT, on the 8th January when lighting strikes occurred. Several fires resulted and, as they were remotely situated in inaccessible land, not much attention was paid to them, unfortunately. The region where they began is in New South Wales and under a separate State government authority to the ACT, which is the Australian Capital Territory and home to the National parliament.
Some fires spread quickly and were burning in the ACT soon after. Helicopters started water bombing exercises on 13th January, 5 days after they had started. Why the complacency? That's the question Canberrans are still trying to get an answer to.
ACT are the initials for the Australian Capital Territory and Canberra is the capitak city of Australia and the home of the Federal gocernment. It houses most of its busibess centers and communication,
No End to The Drought
It went on and on
It was mid summer and halfway through a long dry 10 years of drought in the region. We were on water restrictions, dam levels were low and the grass was tinder dry with lots of fuel accumulated in the bush surrounding the Australian Capital Territory. Also known as the ACT it is home to the Australian Federal Parliament
The last thing we needed was fire. During the morning of January 18th it was hard to miss the smoke from the fires edging ever closer towards Canberra from the west. The wind was building when my sister rang me from Bateman's Bay, some 3 hours drive away.
"Norma, are you in the path of those fires?" she asked, apprehensively.
"Yes," I replied on the verge of tears to hear her voice and the care she had for me. But I was also worried. There were no warnings over the radio and the wind was blowing from the west. Kambah, were I live, is well in from the outskirts where it would have to pass first. it was hard to imagine that it could reach me. To do so it would have to travel some 10 kilometers or more over other suburbs. Surely I was safe. But how safe were others in its path. Still no warning, in fact there was nothing on the radio about the fires at all except to say they were burning in the Namadgi national Park.
The radio was the main source of information for everyone as there was nothing on the television or anywhere else. Hour after hour on that Saturday I watched in horror as the smoke continued to build and the wind got stronger. Around 2.30 to 3 p.m. I got a rather strange phone call from a guy in Western Australia, the other side of the continent. He had rung me in error but informed me that he was trying to reach his brother and family on the other side of Kambah, near the golf links. He asked me how bad the fires were as he heard that houses had been burnt down in Duffy.
My brain was spinning. Where is Duffy I thought? Then news came in, probably over the radio (I can't remember) that over a hundred houses had been burnt down in Duffy. It was around 3pm. Still not able to focus on exactly where Duffy is I went back to doing what I had been doing, listening to the radio.
The Smoke Reached all the way to Bateman's Bay and beyond
Hardly the Time to Get Active
But the emergency was now.
A couple of months earlier a diagnosis of pneumonia and post viral myalgia saw me in hospital. On release it was several weeks before I could walk any distance and then while walking along the footpath with my dog in tow I fell over and unbeknown to me at the time had ripped both my rotator cuffs in my shoulders. This made it hard for me to do anything much outside and the pain had been quite severe although, at that time, I did not know the extent of the damage that had been done.
The strange thing as the fire worsened was that helicopters were flying overhead taking pictures of the fire approaching the ACT and were beaming those pictures interstate. No one in the ACT could see them and there was a television blackout on the fires. Obviously that was intended to stop panic. But it not only cost a lot of destruction but a lot of probably avoidable death and injuries. So why were we not told?
Then I heard that a hundred houses had burnt down in Duffy, probably from the radio. They then issued warnings for Rivett, Kambah, Wanniassa, Woden, and a few other suburbs. "Warnings?" I thought, "what do they mean?" It was a puzzle because no one was telling us what to do or how to avoid the fire or injury or anything else. Those more able than me had, in fact, packed up their cars and were evacuating. I was in something of a daze not knowing what to do.
Just after 3 my daughter, Karen, rang and said they were evacuating that embers were falling on their roof and some houses had burnt down in their street. She lives in Rivett, about 8 kilometers from me. She suggested I should evacuate as well.
About that time it started getting darker outside. It was like when a thunder storm is approaching. I stood in the Dining room and thought about what should I take if I evacuate. There are all the family treasures, photos, keepsakes, memories, archives, and so on. Then there are my computer files, manuscripts, books, discs, and so on. The list was extensive and with my sore shoulders my capacity was rather limited. About that time the radio went off and it was completely black inside the house.
That stopped me even thinking about evacuation because it was impossible to see anything.
As I pondered these things it suddenly got much darker outside, like midnight. That's when I called my sister Robyn, in Camden about 3 hours north. I explained the situation and my brother-n-law, John, who has years of mine rescue experience told me to plug my downpipes, fill my guttering with water and hose down the roof. With him on the hands free I manipulated the ladder and climbed up, now in pitch dark, and did as he told me.
There was a pelting of something like rain and I told him about it. He could not understand that. Then there was an enormous wind. It was like a tornado and it sounded like a massive freight train passing through. Later I would discover than my peach tree was split in half and most of it was knocked over. Later I discovered that the "rain" was in fact embers and that there were little burns over my arms and legs.
Having hosed down the roof, front and back, I noticed the neighbors in a huddle across the street. It was getting a bit lighter and on speaking to them I discovered that the whole of Mount Taylor, about a hundred meters from the house, had gone up in flames. The electric sub-station had gone with it, thus explaining the sudden blackout. A house was destroyed in my street and in the next street another house was blown down with several losing their roofs. Loud explosions could be heard in all directions and it was probably car petrol tanks but a neighbor said it could be gas bottles.
By 5p.m. we could breath again but the drama was not over.
Have You Ever Been in a Firestorm
Would you evacuate
This fire was Massive
It was unbelievable that no warnings were sounding, no alarms were ringing, no evacuations were ordered. Above all there were no sirens, no noise much of any description except the wind outside and then darkness.
Footage taken around 3-4pm - This is Duffy and these are the houses burning down
My Other Daughter Was In Trouble
Evacuation was impossible
My other daughter, Margaret, got through to me at around 5.30 and said she was in a panic. She had a baby a few months old, the house was full of smoke and she had tried to drive to me but the police had turned her back. She was now stuck and houses were burning all around her in Turner, on the other side of Mount Taylor.
She was not in the line of the fire now but the smoke was really getting to her. I told her to close all doors and windows and to keep low to the floor to avoid the worst of it. She is tough and a survivor and she knows what to do in an emergency but there was nothing more I could do. The neighbors told me that all the streets around me were blocked off as police diverted traffic away from the fire. Needing batteries and stuff for dinner, no electricity meant no heating, I headed the other way down to the local supermarket. They too were closed except for the men at the door handing out bottles of water for free to everyone.
It came to our attention at that time that the water from the reservoirs was polluted and we should not be drinking it. I took a couple of large bottles and said I needed torches. One of the guys said they had sold out of those much earlier and there was nothing available. In fact all their refrigeration was also off and thousands of dollars worth of stock was lost.
My fridge was off too and the freezer was full of stuff that could also be ruined. The next thing was to get some ice, which I managed at the local service station. It saved the freezer until the following day when the power came back on.
Everywhere around me was a mess and the stench from the fires was overwhelming. Just before the power went off I had defrosted and heated a meal from the freezer and was able to eat that for dinner, but others were not so lucky. The following morning I picked Margaret and the baby up ealry and we drove to a restaurant in Woden for breakfast.
What if your life is threatened - How would you react?
Would you stay and defend your house and home in the face of a fire
Mount Taylor Ablaze - My house is just to the left of it.
If Fire Is Likely near You - Then Be Prepared
Don't wait until evacuation orders come but plan for fire months in advance. Think about what you need to take and store it in a handy container which will fit easily in the boot of the car.
If you were about to lose everything - Would it be worth dying for?
In Australia death by fire is related mainly to people staying to save and protect their property and belongings. When they decide it is time to go it is often too late. Roads are closed and the fire has advanced too quickly to escape.
Would you stay to defend your property
The Disaster was Huge
And it was fatal
Over 400 homes burned down that day and 4 people died. One from a heart attack while trying to save his home and 3 from remaining inside their burning houses. But there was another death toll which few gave much thought to. Animals perished in their thousands everywhere.
From kangaroos, emus, koalas, native birds, possums, wombats, horses, cattle and so on. There was no end to the trail of death. Everywhere one travelled there were carcasses and then there were the wounded. Kangaroos whose long legs were severely burned while hopping to escape were painful to see. There was not a blade of grass left anywhere for food.
Many farms were wiped out with huge loss of pigs, cattle, sheep, chickens, and you name it. People tried desperately to save their animals and many were cruelly burnt in the process. The stories were told for months afterwards.
In Duffy a veterinary clinic was burnt down along with a lot of domestic animals. This was also a boarding kennel for dogs and cats while owners were on holidays. It was the middle of the summer holiday season and people returned to this devastation. Many pets were farewelled with tears and flowers and a memorial. Many valuable animals had also perished across the highway at the RSPCA shelter. People tried desperately to get them out but the gates were locked as were the cages inside, Some did get free but how many were saved is unknown.
Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve - Only one koala survived the fire but was severely burned
Fire Spread Through all These Suburbs
The fire came from Weston through Warramanga and the entire green area was burnt out, being Mount Taylor, just behind my house and in front of it. House were burnt down in Weston, Chapman, Chifley, Rivett, Kambah, Wanniassa and Torrens.
Nothing but Stupidity
The repercussions began
First there were vain attempts to explain the lack of information given to the residents. The Chief Minister made excuses that he did not get any warning until midday when he was called to fire headquarters. Knowing the dire situation that was facing us he chose not to inform the public of the danger.
Between Duffy and Kambah there are some 10 or more suburbs and a population of many thousands. Where the fires reached was almost to a major CBD area of Woden and houses burned down in areas adjacent to it, Many business were also lost.
Had he done so at that time people would have had 3 hours of notice to get animals out of harm's way, to evacuate their houses, take the essential pictures and memorabilia and things and evacuate to safer areas. But instead the fires were allowed to proceed as though it was a normal day. By the time I got a warning it was just about too late for me to go anywhere because already roads were blocked and probably clogged with fleeing families. But that 3 hours would have made a huge difference as I could have become another casualty.
This is the bush capital and we are surrounded by native trees and shrubs and the animals come up to the house, on occasions. While we may not have been able to save the wildlife there were a lot of domestic animals that were sacrificed that day, including those at the vet practice which burnt down. People who were nearby and completely unaware of the firestorm approaching us could have made it home in tome to save what they wanted to, including their pets. Instead they lost everything. The only reports of the fire were on the ABC radio or from interstate friends. My brother and a few others rang from Sydney to check on me as they had more knowledge of the fires than I did.
We are facing a worsening situation with fire every year as the climate changes. One day the whole of Canberra may burn to the ground, as many other cities are also threatened. Last year it was Athens that was almost inundated with flame. Spain and Portugal have had their problems as well. So to the west coast of the USA.
We can't stop climate change but survival may depend on strategies put in place now before fire approaches. If that had been done Canberra may not have suffered quite as much. We have to fireproof and remove all flammable materials long before the season approaches.
The most telling thing is that not even the gas, reticulated to the suburbs, was turned off until the following day. One man reported to me how he had watched the plastic seal on his gas meter melt and the gas ignite and shoot up to catch his roof alight. Other houses burnt down because old, dirty fences caught fire and fed it to the house. There is a lot that can be done to fireproof houses and I guess it depends on the owners and tenants to look out for themselves because in this case we were on our own. Our government chose it that way.
Still images from Dreamstime - click here