By Anne Matthews

australian canberra bushfires

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Fire is not a gentle master!

It is 17 years since my husband, son, golden retriever, Charlie, and I survived the Firestorm that hit Canberra on Saturday 18 January 2003. This was the worst natural disaster to ever strike the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). As I write this, a state of emergency has been declared in the ACT due to the threat of fires surrounding Canberra. This declaration has bought back memories of that very hot January day in 2003.

The 2003 Canberra bushfires caused severe damage to the suburbs and surrounding land of the ACT during 18–22 January 2003. Almost 70% of the ACT’s nature reserves, pastures, and pine plantations were badly damaged and most of the Mount Stromlo Observatory was destroyed. After burning for a week around the edges of the ACT, the fires entered the suburbs of Canberra on 18 January 2003.

Over the next ten hours, four people died, more than 490 people were injured, and 470 homes were destroyed or severely damaged. At that time we were living in Chapman, one of the eight residential suburbs of Weston Creek. The District of Weston Creek is situated about 13 kilometres southwest of the Canberra City Centre. Chapman, Rivett, Duffy and Holder, the worst-affected suburbs of the 2003 fires, are situated adjacent to the large Stromlo Pine Plantation which was completely destroyed in the fires.

The sound of exploding pine trees, the complete darkness at 4 pm on a hot dry summer’s afternoon, the smoke, floating embers and the height of the approaching firewall are still very vivid in my mind. Michael and I were at home when a friend rang just after 2.00 pm to see if we were alright. Ron had heard an emergency radio broadcast listing Chapman, Duffy, Holder, and Rivett as at risk in the approaching fire.

It was a 40-degree dry hot day and we were inside in air-conditioned comfort, sitting in an east-facing room. When we went outside and looked to the west we couldn’t believe the scene – fire, smoke, and embers, plus the sound of exploding pines and gums. Then we heard “Elvis” the helicopter, flying over and dropping water on the fires. We turned on ABC 666 radio and listened to the emergency instructions. The station closed down normal programs and just gave a continual update.

On that Saturday afternoon, the radio announcer was a calming influence and provided a lifeline. She kept repeating important information about the location of Evacuation Centres, how to prepare your home and when to leave. I will always be grateful to ABC 666, especially since January is usually a quiet time in Canberra. Parliament is not sitting and many public servants take holidays as it is also the long school holiday break. Many Canberra businesses, including Radio Stations, work with a skeleton staff.

Those announcers who were on duty had to work long hours to provide emergency coverage. Our son Tim was playing cricket for his Weston Creek team in Woden and I rang him to tell him to come home. He said he had just called an end to the game because it was so dark where he was you couldn’t see the ball! He was a bit annoyed because he was 40 not out and on a roll!

Michael and our next-door neighbour started hosing down our houses and putting embers out on houses across the road. When Tim arrived home he got up on the roof and watered everything down. I started packing the two cars. Between 3.00 and 3.30 pm the first houses were lost in Eucumbene Drive Duffy, which had pine forests across the road. We lost power around this time. Around 4.00 pm Police and Emergency Services came down our street with a loud hailer calling out ‘Evacuate Now.’

It was quite surreal and eerie – like a scene from an apocalyptic movie. Looking back up to the west of our street we could see the fire raging. Embers and small sparks seemed to be coming at us in the strong wind like we see tracer bullets in a movie. Gas bottles were exploding and the local Rivett petrol station had already caught fire. This was all accentuated as it was very dark and all you could hear was the police loudspeakers and “Elvis” flying over.

Tim and Charlie left in his car and Michael and I in ours. We joined the long queue of cars driving through the reddish tinged darkness to the Evacuation Centre in Woden. We picked up a man walking out with all his possessions in one suitcase. The Evacuation Centre was crowded and wouldn’t take animals, so we drove into the underground car park of my Office and parked our cars, and Charlie, there until we could sort out emergency accommodation.

We survived and I am proud of how calm the three of us were, unlike many around us. Our house survived with only minor damage (ash and embers had seeped in through bathroom and toilet vents and we had to throw out a freezer full of frozen food that had perished without electricity) but we couldn’t move back in for five days. I remember walking around my devastated neighbourhood and calculating that the last house to burn in our Street was less than 500 metres from our home.

If it had not been for a change in wind direction which turned the fire up the hill our home would have been lost. Funny thoughts do go through your mind – one concerned having a cup of tea. The fact the electricity was “out” didn’t register until you thought about it. But, being there in total darkness, due to the smoke, at 3 pm, made you lose your sense of reality.

Subsequent inquiries into the 2003 bushfires, including the Roche report, the McLeod inquiry, and the Coroner’s Report, identified poor management of the initial response to the four fires that started as a result of lightning strikes in New South Wales on 8 January as a key contributor to the disaster that occurred on 18 January 2003. Also, Researchers have confirmed that the first fire tornado was observed during these 2003 fires.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of it all – notwithstanding the fires and loss – was after we returned, having people cruising the area – either sightseeing or offering to buy burnt out blocks from those coming to terms with their losses. You truly see the very best and the very worst of human nature in these times. Thankfully the worst was confined to a very, very small minority.

The funniest aspect? Well, we’d always had a disaster emergency plan for such things. It contained a list of “must take with us” items. Passports, Birth Certificates, important documents, photos, jewellery, mementos, etc. As we drove away I remembered that I had left the plan with the Passports and Documents. However, we had taken the things that really mattered – ourselves, our dog, precious photos and mementos.

Today we still laugh about how we thought we were so prepared and forgot all our important documents. On Friday 31 January 2020 ACT Chief Minister, Andrew Barr, declared a state of emergency in the ACT. A state of emergency is the strongest possible signal the ACT government can send to the community to prepare for the worst. It gives the ACT Emergency Services Agency Commissioner, Georgeina Whelan, the authority to coordinate resources across the ACT government to respond to the developing threat of fire to Canberra properties.

This time the authorities appear to be better prepared. In 2003, instead of urging residents to leave the area, they asked us to return to our homes and prepare for the coming fire front. And, at first, a senior emergency services official resisted police efforts to declare a state of emergency, which would allow police to forcibly evacuate residents. Fires can happen in any community.

I must admit feeling uneasy last year when the fires broke out along Sunderland Drive. And I did go and check that our Disaster Plan was with our important documents! So from personal experience, the best advice I can give is to prepare your home, by hosing down, put water in your roof gutters if you can, make water available for the firefighters and leave early. Material goods are replaceable – even your documents – lives are not.

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A highly successful sales and leadership career working in a number of different and very competitive industries. Engaging with decision makers at all levels in business and government. Three decades employed by corporations, SME businesses in senior roles and almost twelve years operating as a freelance contractor has equipped me well for all aspects of business. Whether leading and mentoring sales teams, or in a direct sales role I enjoy the challenge to meet and exceed expectations. Making a real and tangible difference in either a team environment or as an individual is an important personal goal I have consistently achieved throughout my career. In all of my business and personal dealings over the years there is one issue that stands out above all others - communication. Excellent communication skills creates trust, helps with mutually beneficial outcomes and above all cements long lasting positive relationships. I strive everyday to communicate effectively with the people I encounter.