On the 18th January (just a couple of days ago) many people throughout the nations remembered the disastrous Canberra bushfires some 14 years ago. The bare facts are that over 500 houses were destroyed, many more were damaged and 4 people died. Hundreds of animals and livestock also perished and Canberra’s Mount Stromlo Observatory, with millions of dollars worth of equipment and data was destroyed.
Those are the facts, but facts cannot even begin to convey the true horror of that day. Firstly, some background. The Canberra fire was started by a lightning strike near Googong Dam on Boxing Day 2002. An inspection on that day by local authorities (including the local Chief Minister who was lucky to escape with his life when his helicopter crashed into the dam) declared that the fire was minor and that it wouldn’t spread to anywhere where it could cause damage as the containment lines would hold. Throughout the next two weeks as the fire grew in size and intensity and continued its inexorable march towards the city the mantra “the containment lines will hold” was constantly repeated despite overwhelming evidence that they were NOT holding.
By the 17th the fire was on the outskirts of Canberra and was threatening to get into the pine forests that formed a ring around the south western suburbs of the city. Panic ensued as the authorities finally realised that they had been tragically wrong. Helicopters and fire fighting aircraft were called for and every firefighter who could be recruited was brought in. But it was all too little, too late. Saturday morning dawned with a pall of smoke to the west. It was well over 30 degrees and the wind was picking up. It was the perfect recipe for the destruction that was about to be unleashed.
Was a harrowing day it turned out being. Bizarrely, I was at Weston Park having a picnic with some friends and the sky got very dark. It seems inconceivable to me now that we believed what we had been told and were going about our normal lives as if there was no danger. Rick said that we’d better head home (he lived in Holder, me in Rivett). By the time I got home I knew it was bad. Cop cars on the corners, long streams of cars heading down the Parkway, their tail lights glowing through the smoke. We had already prepared the house so we moved into preservation mode. The cars were packed with our valuables and Helena’s mum and dad had already been evacuated to a friend’s place, buried deep in the suburbs of Belconnen, well out of harm’s way.
My wife hosed the front of the house and I hosed the back. We also kept hosing the embers that were falling into the yard. The wind was horrendous, all the helicopters were grounded at Curtin Oval because it was too dangerous for them to fly. By mid afternoon it was dark. We could hear the police cars driving along Darwinia Terrace with police using loudhailers telling people to evacuate and we realised that the fire was heading down on us from Chapman on one side and Duffy on the other. Then the colour of the smoke began to change from the ashy brown/white of burning pine trees to the greasy black of burning houses. We started to hear explosions as peoples’ gas bottles and hot water systems started to go up and then one mighty one as the tanks at Duffy BP went up. I remember thinking (and I am forever ashamed that I did) that we would probably be safe as the fire would slow down once it started burning the houses and I thanked God that it was so. By 1600 it was blacker than midnight and I remember thinking that it should surely stop now but then wondering why I would believe that. Gradually the explosions lessened and the wind began to drop and we started to realise that we had been spared. It was horrendous, the most frightening experience of my life.
The aftermath was nearly as shocking. Houses just 8 blocks from our place were razed and many Canberra residents, down the coast on summer holidays, were prevented by police from returning to find out of their homes were still there. It is probably true that more houses would have been saved if their owners HAD been there to defend them rather than at Batemans Bay where they could do nothing but listen in horror to the radio as it broadcast the unfolding tragedy. Most people who lost their houses lost everything. Floods leave the debris behind and some can be salvaged. Fires leave nothing. Most residents whose homes had been destroyed found that, while their insurance policies covered the cost of rebuilding their homes, the did NOT cover the cost of demolition of what was left and the taking away and disposing of the spoil. This cost was about $30000 for an average home. It was the cruelest of blows for people who had already suffered so much.
To their credit, the ACT government (wise after the event) stepped up to the plate. More than 25% of all the power poles in Canberra were destroyed and the damage to the electricity network was massive. Our house was without power for SIX days in the aftermath of the fire. The government quickly arranged for huge skip bins to be placed in every shopping centre in the affected suburbs and residents could dump the contents of their fridges and freezers free of charge.
More importantly, the government put a freeze on all insurance claims until all affected blocks could be assessed and demolition and removal of spoil could be achieved AT THE GOVERNMENT’S EXPENSE. It took less than 2 months of excavators and trucks working 24/7 for this to happen and we got used to the sound of the huge trucks rolling past our house.
Gradually, the city began to recover. The astonishing generosity and heart of the Canberra community showed through. For a city that most outsiders say doesn’t HAVE a heart, the local residents proved that it is a lie. Aid stations, charities and churches and service clubs were deluged with donations and few, if any, of the affected residents had to suffer any more than was absolutely unavoidable. I was SO proud to be a Canberran during the aftermath of the fire.
A lot people rebuilt but many didn’t. For some the prospect was just too awful and, for years afterwards, the suburbs affected were dotted with empty housing blocks increasingly covered with weeds. A lot of people moved away, unable to love their city as they had, the memories just too raw and vivid.
I still get the shivers remembering that day and I think I always will.