Ten years on from the fire that changed our capital
Ten years ago on the evening of January 18 I was balancing a hose and a camera on the roof of my house as I watched huge helicopter water bombers changing course overhead.
They would scoop water from a nearby dam, drop it on flames about 2km from where I sat, then make the brief flight north to the landmark of the Curtin shops where they banked hard to the south-west to repeat the cycle.
It was 10 years ago that the much-loved fingers of bushland which had previously poked benignly into the urban folds of Canberra became thoroughfares for deadly fires. The bushfires had manoeuvred for the past week at the city’s outskirts, but on that Saturday, January 18, they swept, as if in a co-ordinated attack, down the highly combustible bushland lanes which led to the heart of many suburbs. When the battle for Canberra finally ended a week or so later, 70 per cent of those stretches of prized parklands, plantation forests, and pastures including horse paddocks had been razed or badly damaged.
More devastating was the loss to citizens. Some 300 houses were gone and their families homeless. Four people had died, and these tragedies were felt by the people of the city. Many more were badly burned and are still recovering to this day.
Canberra is distinct among its peer national capitals of industrialised nations.
It is probably the only one which occasionally has mega-fauna road kill found within a kilometre or so of the national legislature. Errant kangaroos sometimes perish on the roads below Parliament House.
And Canberra is probably the only capital of an industrialised nation where the menace of bushfires is real. As dreadful as that is, it is also fitting that the capital of Australia should be vulnerable to the violence of nature like much of the rest of the country.
The lessons from a decade ago, and the anguish that learning involved, are as real as those in other states blackened by fires.
There is a common and perverse notion that somehow Canberra and its people are removed from the lives of the rest of Australia. The 2003 fires established how wrong that was.
Ten years ago it happened so quickly that the newly-relocated emergency services HQ, just down the hill from my rooftop in Curtin, close to the geographical centre of Canberra, was itself being menaced by fire, primarily from large embers carried by a strong wind.
Grassland around the national Mint a few kilometres to the north of Curtin was ablaze. Other suburbs to the south were hit by even more ferocious fires. Houses in the Tuggeranong Valley 10 kms away were ablaze.
The very routine of nature was upturned by the invasion. Heavy smoke had shut out the sun so effectively by early afternoon that flowers closed their petals hours before sunset and birds roosted for sleep. But the night was lit up by a merciless front of flame.
Among the things I learned from the week was a definition of bravery.
People who do things without an accurate calculation of the risk are impetuous. People who know full well the danger they face but still move towards it are brave.
That includes the fire fighters who could haver died as they battled a front near a water treatment plant but stayed put because they did not want a chlorine tank to explode and send toxic fumes through all of Canberra.
Then there was the fire brigade crew instructed to remain in position awaiting orders. However, they saw a mass of flame their superiors were not aware of heading towards houses.
They not only reported the new fire front but disobeyed orders and drove to it to protect the neighbourhood.
There also was much to learn about the willingness of individuals to help strangers.
A social worker friend volunteered her experience and contacts to help look after people evacuated to a local college, one of four schools in Canberra which became respite centres and even homes for fire victims.
She worked tirelessly and the next I saw her was at the January 26 Australia Day function at The Lodge. I was chatting to her when Prime Minister John Howard joined us.
I started to give him a potted account of my friend’s efforts when he interrupted. “I know,” he said. “That’s why she’s here.”
Howard had met her while touring the evacuation centres and invited her to take part in the Australia Day events. It wasn’t a stunt. Howard wanted to honour her, and through her the other helpers. It was a spontaneous, genuine display of his better instincts.
Another friend lost his house along with his beloved collection of 45rpm records gathered over a generation.
I mentioned this on Sydney radio and suddenly the chap was swamped by discs of all types, sent by listeners who wanted to help. Many of the recordings he would not have played at gunpoint, but the important point was the caring response.
There is still bitterness in some over the management of fire fighting 10 years ago and the failure in warning systems. And the sweep of events in 2003 is still stark to the city’s south where hills once covered by trees are still naked.
And those who lost possessions and loved ones can never regain their lives completely.
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