A Report by John Smarz
Canberra Bushfire, January 18, 2003 - My Report
Many of you visiting this website will already have seen television coverage of the horrendous bushfire that ravaged our fine city on Saturday, January 18, 2003. The community is still in shock, such is the trauma it has inflicted upon us all, even those who did not lose property or loved ones in it.
Here is my account of the situation. For those of you who like short reports I apologise in advance. But as this bushfire that devastated our city has changed it and countless lives forever I feel obliged to report to you in detail, not just to give you a full appreciation of its carnage and destruction but because many of you can relate to tragedy in your own lives. It was a freak of Nature that will probably not be seen for another 100 or 200 years!
In the space of just a few hours on this Black Saturday our beautiful national capital (known as the "Bush Capital") was assaulted like none of us could have envisaged. Bushfires from surrounding bushland and national parks engulfed Canberra. Most bushfires spread through ember attack, i.e. where the winds blow embers ahead of the fire and they start up smaller fires and get swallowed up again as the main fire comes through. But the bushfire we experienced was a firestorm! It was fanned by winds of around 60 miles/95 kilometres an hour!
After the bushfire had gone through the Chief Minister for the Australian Capital Territory (a similar governmental arrangement to Washington DC) immediately declared a state of emergency in the territory. It was to remain in force until January 29, some 12 days!
A total of 530 homes were lost with four people killed and hundreds sustaining injury. A number of people were also airlifted to Sydney for specialist care for severe burns. More than 2,000 people were evacuated from their homes. About 4,000 sheep perished in the fire, as did 150 head of cattle and 35 horses. A week after the bushfire some 3,000 homes were still without power, such was the extent of the damage and destruction it dumped on us.
On the day before the bushfire, Friday, January 17, thick smoke shrouded the city from bushfires burning in areas surrounding Canberra. By midday huge black clouds of smoke were passing overhead at high altitude showering us with burnt leaves from our native species like falling snowflakes in winter! Just floating down, tumbling and turning in their descent. As it turns out that was the calm before the storm! That night the moon was a bright reddish orange color, resplendent but ominous of what was awaiting us!
The thick smoke continued through the night, by then it was in our homes, in our clothes, even our hair reeked of it. By midday, Saturday, it had changed from a whitish color to grey, then a darker grey. It was 37° Celsius (100° Fahrenheit). By 2.30pm visibility had been reduced to that of dusk and by 4.30pm street lighting had already come on. Total darkness fell over the city by 4.45pm (sunset is around 8.20pm at this time of the year). At around 5.30pm we lost power to my area and by then we were in total darkness anyway, the whole sky having turned a bright reddish orange as the bushfire, now a firestorm, began to devour everything in its path!
For days before the bushfire hit all available helicopters had been water-bombing trouble spots. After the bushfire water-bombing continued to put out smouldering fires in hard-to-get-at places. Our Australian Vietnam veterans living here, numbering more than 600, could have been excused for thinking they were reliving their experiences in Vietnam!
The ferocity of the fire had to be experienced to be believed. It chose surrounding pine plantations and nature reserves as its avenue of assault. Residents all over Canberra had all day been listening to our tried-and-true, ever-so-reliable radio station, the ABC, for updates as the day wore on. Messages were regularly repeated - to stay in your homes and remain calm until the fire has passed, leaving only if the situation deteriorated to the point where evacuation was necessary. This generic message may well have contributed to the enormous loss of property and loss of life. Such messages may be appropriate for "normal" bushfires but this bushfire was a spontaneous mutation and was out to stamp its superiority on all who dared challenge it!
Within an instant the fire was attacking our city from several fronts simultaneously, as with military precision. With the ready fuel source provided by the pine plantations and nature reserves the fire gorged itself to full capacity and engulfed everything. One resident of the worst-affected area, Duffy (just a 15-minute drive from my home), a suburb of the district of Western Creek, saw a small spot fire start on his neighbor's front lawn. He went back inside to put on his shoes but when he came back out the house was well alight! Such was the force and power of the fire.
Home after home was engulfed. Residents, inappropriately attired for firefighting with no time to change, grabbed whatever they could to fight for their homes and their very lives - garden hoses, hessian sacks, a garden spade to whack out spot fires, anything they thought might help. Those who had foreseen the danger had hosed down their rooves, houses and gardens. The devastation was immense. In total darkness with only the light from the bushfire to guide them residents were quickly overcome, both by fire and the choking smoke. Eye?witness reports had it that the fire's radiant heat was incredible.
With only eight fire trucks to protect the city's population of around 330,000 the fire brigade's offense was destined to be innocuous (flames were 30 to 40 feet high in some cases!). Yet, there are numerous feats of heroism to be told. One fire truck was burnt in the fires in Duffy with the crew lucky to have escaped with their lives. Another crew saw the curtains in a house move as they drive down that street. They went to investigate. They found an elderly couple inside with their dog. Had they not gotten them out they would surely have perished.
Friends in the suburb of Weston fought fires in their street, and two homes were lost. One man lost his home in the suburb of Holder, and had to be dragged from the burning building by neighbors because he was in shock. Such was the force of the fire in Duffy, the worst-hit suburb, it penetrated the suburb by five street blocks! It was ferocious beyond belief! Aerial shots of the suburb have it looking like a bomb scene!
A local resident in Duffy, aware that many of his neighbors were elderly, infirm or without transport, toured the neighborhood in his ute (Australian slang for the word "utility" - a motor vehicle similar to a pickup truck in North America but retaining more features of a sedan) gathering up five or six people in distress. He has been praised for his actions, but it was an instinct reaction for him. He did not have to devise a rescue plan; it just happened!
The first casualty was a 61-year old man in Duffy. He died of asphyxiation fighting the fire in his backyard. Tragically, there would be three more to follow, among them an 83-year-old woman and a 37-year-old woman.
An animal hospital in the area was destroyed, as was our much-revered Mount Stromlo Observatory with all of its fine telescopes. A look at the burnt-out bushland after the fire had gone through shows masses of birdlife destroyed (mostly by asphyxiation) as well as many other animal species.
As for myself, I spent Saturday afternoon securing my home and getting it ready should the bushfire come through my part of the suburb. One of my friends lives at the top of the ridge in the suburb of Chapman (also in Weston Creek), backing on to a nature reserve. I frantically called him on Saturday night. His phone was ringing but there was no answer. We had been hearing that people in his area were being evacuated so there was no point going out there in the dark if I could not get to his property. So, first thing Sunday morning I drove out there. As I came up to his property at the very top of the street I saw one color only - black! The entire ground and all vegetation was black. But, to my surprise and relief his house was still standing, virtually unscathed!
They said they had decided to stay and fight, and being the home most at risk because of its location at the top of the ridge all the neighbors chipped in and, collectively, they triumphed. Many others who could not stay and fight lost their homes.
It was a firestorm of cyclonic strength. It tore off a sheet of iron from a water tower near his home hurling it several hundred metres through the air, smashing his lounge room window and landing in his backyard!
He was lucky, though. His gutters were full of leaves. And a bush on the very corner of the house that was dead because of the drought was only six inches shy of his eaves. Had embers gotten into that he could well have lost his house!
Whilst at my friend's place we heard a loud crash in the reserve. We turned around and saw a large eucalypt (at least 30 years old) had just exploded from the heat build?up inside it and sent a huge limb crashing to the ground. It sent a cloud of ash into the air and began smouldering.
After spending an hour with my friends cleaning up their yard I left and went three streets away to see how the house of my tax agent was, also on the ridge. I had been there just the week before to sign off on my tax returns. She had lodged everybody's returns, was packing that night (Tuesday) and next morning heading off to Brisbane with her husband for a two-week holiday. They now have no home! The house had been reduced to a mere row of a few bricks - no walls, no roof.
After leaving there I drove up to the other end of my suburb (Lyons) to see the three houses that had been lost in Devenport/Scottsdale Streets. They all backed onto the reserve and were now just smouldering ruins. One house had all the residents on their front nature strip visibly distressed, and that was the end of me too! I had to drive on; I could not watch, it was too upsetting. The electricity sub?station at the junction of the suburb with the reserve was completely destroyed. I even saw a wooden power pole hanging suspected from the power lines, only the top third of it in tact, the remainder burnt right off!
As for myself, and many others in the community, I am still in shock from it all. We had no power for 24 hours (coming back around 5.30pm Sunday). To add to that five colleagues from my office have lost their homes - three in Duffy, one in Holder and one in Curtin (which adjoins my suburb). The Curtin loss was the most bizarre. After a fabulous effort the house was saved and they were putting out spot fires and the like when a gum tree near the house, still smouldering, exploded and shed a huge limb which crashed through the roof and burnt down the house.
Sufficient unto the day was the trauma thereof, to paraphrase Matthew the disciple! Not in a million years could any one of us in this community have foreseen what was about to hit our city in the space of just two hours! On Saturday, January 18, 2003 Mother Nature dealt Canberra a cruel hand, but from it has come much good - an appreciation of what we have, giving and bonding with others to mention just a few. Many residents left their own homes to repel the fire from their neighbors' properties, with this time of year being the summer school holidays when many are away on vacation.
John, in Canberra (still in shock but will recover)