2003 Canberra bushfires

2003 Canberra bushfires

Infobox wildfire
title= 2003 Canberra bushfires

location= Canberra, Australian Capital Territory
date= January 18 2003
source= Lightning strikes in Brindabella and Namadgi National Parks
landuse= urban/rural fringe areas, farmland, and forest reserves
fatalities= 4

The Canberra bushfires of 2003 caused severe damage to the outskirts of Canberra, the Australian capital city. Almost 70% of the Australian Capital Territory’s pasture, forests (pine plantations) and nature parks were severely damaged, and most of the renowned 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 and more than 500 homes were destroyed or severely damaged, requiring a significant relief and reconstruction effort.

Origin of the fires

Fires had been burning in the adjoining Brindabella and Namadgi National Parks to the west of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) since January 8 2003 when lightning strikes had started 160 fires.

On 13 January, a helicopter that had been waterbombing the fires in the forests west of Canberra crashed into Bendora Dam with one person, the pilot, injured. ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope and Chief Fire Officer Peter Lucas-Smith were reviewing the fires nearby in the Snowy Hydro Southcare helicopter. The pilot of the Southcare chopper cautiously positioned his aircraft to allow Stanhope, Lucas-Smith and a paramedic onboard to dive into the dam and rescue the injured pilot. All three who rescued the injured pilot and the helicopter pilot later received awards for their bravery.

On 17 January, the ESB released its final media release prior to January 18 at 8:50pm. [The Canberra Firestore Vol 1, Ch 5, p 306, paragraph 5 | http://www.courts.act.gov.au/BushfireInquiry/The%20Canberra%20Firestorm%20Report/The%20Canberra%20Firestorm%20(VOL%20I)%20(chapter%205).pdf] This media release differed to any previous one in format and content. It also provided several clues that were overlooked in the assessment of the risk Canberra faced. For example, one point of the release stated that bushfire logistical support staging areas were being relocated from Bulls Head and Orroral Valley (far outside urban Canberra) to the North Curtin District Playing Fields (far inside urban Canberra) [The Canberra Firestore Vol 1, Ch 5, p 307] signalling both a major retreat by fire fighters and pointing to imminent danger to the city itself.

aturday 18 January

As strong winds (classed as a minor cyclone with winds strong enough to uproot Eucalypt trees) and high temperatures (pushing 40C/104F degrees) continued into the morning of Saturday, 18 January, residents in rural areas west and north-west of the city were told to prepare for the worst. Two fires continued to burn out of control in the Namadgi National Park, with the entire park, along with the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve being closed due to the threat. A second fire in the Brindabella Ranges was threatening to break containment lines.

By 9:00 a.m. on the morning of Saturday 18, burned leaves appeared on lawns in houses in the Weston Creek, Kambah and Tuggeranong suburbs bordering the western extremity of Canberra. By 10 a.m. news helicopters were overflying Duffy and reporting news of the fires interstate and internationally, but no news was available locally.

Throughout the day, the fires burned closer to the fringes of Canberra's suburbs, and there was no sign of authorities gaining control of the situation. At around 2p.m, police evacuated the township of Tharwa to the south of Canberra. Though the town was in very real danger, with the fire front surrounding and impacting the township, firefighters under the command of Southern Brigades Captain Val Jeffrey were able to prevent the loss of any property other than some minor sheds. By mid-afternoon, it had become apparent that the fires posed an immediate threat to the settlements such near Canberra such as Uriarra and Stromlo as well as houses on the city's urban bushland interface. A state of emergency was declared at 2.45 p.m. by the ACT's Chief Minister, Jon Stanhope.

The fires reached the urban area at 3 p.m. The first emergency warning advisories were broadcast shortly after on radio and television, with the advisories updated throughout the day. These advisories, accompanied by the Emergency Warning Signal stated that a significant "deterioration" of the fire situation in the ACT had occurred and placed several suburbs on alert to evacuate. As the day continued, these advisories advised the evacuation of several suburbs (also enforced by Police on the ground) and placed most Suburbs of Canberra on some level of alert. Fire was by now on the fringes of many suburbs, was surrounding Tharwa and threatened the historic Lanyon Homestead which was at the time, hosting a wedding and protected by a single fire truck.

By 3:50 p.m. houses were alight in the suburbs of Duffy and Chapman, with the loss of a home in Holder soon after. An ACT Fire Brigade unit perceiving the fire from a vantage point in Fyshwick, overrode instructions by the radio controller to ignore the signs and remain where they were. The unit headed to Duffy, attempting to alert both controllers and residents to the imminent danger. That unit was caught in a fire front on Warragamba Avenue Duffy at around 4:10 pm, after having rescued at least two residents. Both the crew and residents were forced to flee the appliance when the fire struck.

Due to fire damage to infrastructure and extreme winds bringing down powerlines across the area, large parts of the city lost power. Fires also started in Giralang because of powerline problems. Evacuation centres were set up at four schools - Canberra College, Ginninderra College, Erindale College and Narrabundah College. A dark cloud hung over the city, and though it was not in danger, Parliament House was closed.

By 5 p.m., houses were reported destroyed in Duffy, Chapman, Giralang, Holder and Rivett, as well as houses in the small forrestry settlement of Uriarra. It was later found that the first casualty of the fires, an elderly woman named Dorothy McGrath, died at the nearby Stromlo Forrestry Settlement while trying to escape. Escape for residents was hampered by poor warning and the location of the settlement in the pine forrest. Fires in the Michelago area forced the closure of the Monaro Highway into Canberra. Fires spread through the Kambah pool area and into the suburb of Kambah causing damage to many homes and one of the ACT's primary Urban and Rural fire stations.

Fire spread through parkland, crossing the Tuggeranong Parkway, Athlon Drive and finally engulfing Mount Taylor. Within an hour, houses were also burning in Torrens on the slopes of Mt Taylor and Weston. The fires by now had inflicted severe damage to the city's infrastructure. Power supplies were cut to several suburbs. These outages affected the Emergency Services Bureau's own headquarters in Curtin and the Canberra Hospital (running on back-up generators) which was under intense pressure from people suffering burns and smoke inhalation. In Curtin, the ESA headquarters was in danger from the fires. With back-up power only available to the Communications Centre, many personnel were forced to work on tables outside as Army Reserve personnel hosed down the building [Canberra Stateline - report by chris ullman] . It was later noted that the ESB could have moved its operations away from danger to other emergency service locations such as the AFP Winchester Centre or Tuggeranong Police Station [Canberra Stateline - report by chris ullman] . Water, gas, sewerage and communications were heavily affected. Water, gas and landline communications was unavailable to several suburbs due to damage to supply lines and city reservoirs. Mobile telecommunications were severally affacted due to increased traffic, causing serious disruption to mobile phone networks and the ESA's own radio and dispatch networks.

The fires impacted part of the Lower Molonglo Water Quality Control Centre or LMWQCC, responsible for treating the city's sewage and waste water before release into the Molonglo River. The plant's operations were disrupted due to fire damage, causing concern about the possible release of sewage into the Molonglo River as the plant's reserve storage could only hold one day of surplus. However, the lack of resources and equipment failures for crews protecting the plant could have led to a catastrophe, as detailed in Mr Danny Camilleri's testimony in Coroner Maria Doogan's subsequent inquest into the fires. Mr Camilleri testified that his crews arrived to find much of the area around the plant on fire, with a significant risk of the fire impacting on dangerous substances stored at the plant to treat waste, including Chlorine [The Canberra Firestore Vol 1, Ch 5, p 358, paragraph 4 | http://www.courts.act.gov.au/BushfireInquiry/The%20Canberra%20Firestorm%20Report/The%20Canberra%20Firestorm%20(VOL%20I)%20(chapter%205).pdf] . Had stated that if the fire had impacted the chlorine tanks causing a breach, it "would create a poisonous cloud that would blow toward Canberra necessitating mass evacuations. [The Canberra Firestore Vol 1, Ch 5, p 358, paragraph 4 | http://www.courts.act.gov.au/BushfireInquiry/The%20Canberra%20Firestorm%20Report/The%20Canberra%20Firestorm%20(VOL%20I)%20(chapter%205).pdf] "

By 10 p.m., one of the four evacuation centres in Canberra was completely full, and others were filling up quickly. Reports of looting also began to arrive from the damaged areas. Both Prime Minister John Howard and then-Governor General Peter Hollingworth changed their plans in order to return to Canberra as soon as was possible. While the very worst of the fires had passed, the situation was still far from stable, and going into Sunday January 19, houses were still ablaze across numerous suburbs.


By the evening of Sunday, 19 January, it was clear that the worst hit suburb was Duffy (where 200 plus residences were destroyed [cite web
work = Australian Government
publisher = Geoscience Australia
title = Canberra Bushfires Fieldwork
date =
year =
url = http://www.ga.gov.au/image_cache/GA9581.pdf
accessdate =
] ) and that four people had died - they were Alison Tener, 38, Peter Brooke, 74, and Douglas Fraser, 60, all of Duffy, and Dorothy McGrath, 76, of the Mount Stromlo Forestry Settlement. [http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/blame-laid-for-firestorm-deaths/2006/12/19/1166290519557.html] The loss of life and damage to property and the destruction of forests to the west of the city caused not just economic loss but significant social impacts. Many people were affected by depression, particularly those who had lost their homes in the fires. The community questioned the lack of preparation for the fires and the total confusion at the time.In the weeks after January 18, the impact of the fires was studied in detail in order to determine how the damage had been done, and how to better work against such natural disasters in future. The Cities Project compiled information on as many as 431 damaged properties, stratified into the groups of "destroyed", "heavy damage", "medium damage", "light damage", and "superficial damage". This data was split by suburb to form a table which illustrated which areas had taken the most damage. The data allowed them to conclude that the high levels of "destroyed" property (91%) indicated the high speed with which the fire had moved. It was also concluded that once the establishments had caught fire, there was little chance of their being put out. In addition, the study showed that it was not only the fire which caused damage, but also the fierce winds recorded on the day, which were strong enough to uproot some small trees. It is believed that with the aid of this information, better policies and regulations have been formulated, which may help to reduce the destruction by future bushfires in Canberra, as well as in other locales.

Bushfires severely harmed the vegetation of the Cotter River Catchment and caused water quality problems in the three dams in the catchment, Corin, Bendora and Cotter Dams. For quite sometime after the fires however, turbidity in the water due to silt and ash from surrounding burnt out forests meant Canberra had to rely on Googong Dam on the Queanbeyan River, which was not affected by the fires. Given the drought and existing water shortages, this effectively reduced Canberra's water reserves to around 15% for some time. An upgrade to the Stromlo Water Treatment Plant was subsequently required to allow extra filtration of water to cope with the diminished quality in the future.

As with any bushfire, the environment will take significant time to regenerate. Regeneration of vegetation was delayed by an ongoing drought in the region.

Perhaps the most notable cultural and scientific loss caused by the fires was the damage to the scenic and renowned Mount Stromlo Observatory (headquarters of the [http://www.mso.anu.edu.au Research School of Astronomy & Astrophysics] of the Australian National University) which is estimated to be the source of a third of Australia's astronomical research ( [http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn3281 "New Scientist", 20 January 2003] ). Five historically significant telescopes were destroyed. Instrumentation and engineering workshops, the observatory's library and the main administration buildings were consumed. The insurance payment sought by the Australian National University, amounting to 75 million Australian dollars, could become the largest claim in Australian history ( [http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,11692526%255E12332,00.html "The Australian", 15 December 2004] ).Amazingly, the Visitors Center or "exploratory" housing public exhibits and cafe escaped the fires unscathed, despite being on the edge of a steep gradient which fires roared up and being only meters from the 75 cm telescope which was completely destroyed.

Significant Issues

In the aftermath of the fires, people and authorities were able to reflect on the events and analyse what occurred. Some of the revelations were startling while others prompted serious questions about the ACT's management of bushfires.

* Perhaps most concerning for residents of Canberra was the revelation in coroner Maria Doogan's inquest into the fires that revealed the risk posed to Canberra from fire impacting on the Lower Molonglo Water Quality Control Centre. It was revealed in testimony by fire officer Dannie Camilleri that had fire impacted and breached tanks storing chlorine at the centre (as well as other chemicals), it would have caused a disastrous situation, releasing toxic gas and requiring large scale evacuations of the national capital [The Canberra Firestore Vol 1, Ch 5, p 358, paragraph 4 | http://www.courts.act.gov.au/BushfireInquiry/The%20Canberra%20Firestorm%20Report/The%20Canberra%20Firestorm%20(VOL%20I)%20(chapter%205).pdf] .

* Another issue raised was utilisation of equipment, or lack there of. In subsequent investiagtions by the media and the coroner Maria Doogan, many instances were found in which authorities failed to use equipment that was or could have been available to them. For example, the Canberra International Airport had 4 heavy fire fighting tankers capable of transporting and quickly deploying large amounts of water and foam. On this day, 3 were available while the 4th which was under going servicing could be ready at short notice. Given the ACT's urban fire fighting resources were limited (just 12 pumpers and 3 heavy tankers) to protects hundreds of homes (ACT regulations require two pumpers to attend a structural fire such as a house), it was ridiculed that such effective resources were not utilised despite Airservices Australian offering their use. There were also reports of interstate fire crews from the NSW South Coast being turned back on their way to Canberra because some ESB officers considered the situation under control in the days before and on the morning of January 18th.

* Equipment failure was an issue that hampered fire fighting efforts and resulted in one urban fire vehicle being severely damaged. Fire crews found filters in some rural fire fighting vehicles were flammable. Other crews had to contend with engine failure. In one case that under different circumstances, a fire fighter stated they had "..full truck of water but no way to stop the friggin truck" referring to the failure of their vehicle's brakes, and only being able to stop the truck using the hand brakeFact|date=April 2008.

* Communications and Websites failed at crucial times during the fire emergency, with fire dispatch hampered by radio failures. The Canberra Connect websites and ACT Government system for producing media releases also failed, creating delays for information being given to the media and the inability of residents to see information posted on Canberra Connect.

Official responses

Following the 2003 bushfires, the ACT and New South Wales and Australian governments initiated community and official responses to the fire.

Bushfire Recovery Taskforce

The Bushfire Recovery Taskforce was established to advise the ACT Government, provide leadership for the recovery and act as a bridge between Government agencies and the community.

McLeod Inquiry

The ACT Government established the McLeod Inquiry to examine and report on theoperational response to the bushfires. The Inquiry was headed by Ron McLeod, a former Commonwealth Ombudsman. The Inquiry handed down its findings on 1 August 2003.

The inquiry found that:
*The fires, started by lightning strikes, might have been contained, had they been attacked more aggressively in the 24 hours after they broke out. Large stretches of dry drought effected vegetation and weather conditions that were extremely conducive to fire, and meant that once the fires reached a certain size, they were very difficult to control.
*That management of fuel load in parks and access to remote area was lacking.
*Emergency service personnel performed creditably, but they were overwhelmed by the intensity of the fires and the unexpected speed of their advance on 18 January.
*A Comprehensive ACT emergency plan was in place at the time of the fire, it worked particularly in recovery after the fires in dealing with the large number of people who needed temporary shelter and assistance as a consequence of the fires.
*That inadequacies in the physical construction and layout of the Emergency Services Bureau centre in Curtin were a hindrance. The centre was unable to handle efficiently the large amount of data and communications traffic into and out of the centre at the height of the crisis.
*That there were some equipment and resourcing deficiencies within the ACT’s emergency service organisations.
*That information and advice given to the community about the progress of the fires, the seriousness of the threat and the preparations the public should be making was seriously inadequate. There was also confusion as to whether homes should be evacuated.

The Inquiry recommended there should be increased emphasis given to controlled burning as a fuel-reduction strategy. That access to and training of emergency personnel in remote areas need to be improved. That a number of changes be made to the emergency services and the policies that govern their operations, including a greater emphasis on provision of information to the public.

ACT Coroner's Bushfire Inquiry

The Coroner's inquiry commenced in January 2003, and hearing officially opened on 16 June 2003. The Coroner's Court of the Australian Capital Territory conducted an inquiry into the cause, origin and circumstances of the 2003 bushfires and inquests into the four deaths associated with those fires. The inquiry is under the provisions of the ACT "Coroners Act 1997".

The inquiry has been marked by controversy and in February 2005 the ACT Supreme Court heard an application that the coroner be disqualified due to bias. The inquiry into the fires was on hold until August 2005 until the Full Bench of the Supreme Court delivered its decision [http://www.courts.act.gov.au/supreme/judgments/doogan1.htm] that Coroner Maria Doogan should not be disqualified on the ground of a reasonable apprehension of bias. The inquiry reconvened on 17 August 2005.

After hearing over 90 days of evidence the inquiry wrapped up on 25 October 2005. Although the inquiry was supposed to be completed in early 2006, submissions continued in to mid 2006 with the Coroner delivering her findings [http://www.courts.act.gov.au/BushfireInquiry/The%20Canberra%20Firestorm%20Report/The%20Canberra%20Firestorm%20Report.htm "The Canberra Firestorm"] in December 2006.

House Select Committee on the recent Australian bushfires

On 26 March 2003 the House of Representatives established a Select Committee to inquire into the recent Australian bushfires, including the Canberra bushfire. The committee tabled the report of its inquiry on 5 November 2003 and the Australian government presented its response to the report on 15 September 2005.

Bushfire memorial

On 18 January 2006, three years after the day of the bushfires, a bushfire memorial was opened on land which had been affected by the fires in Stromlo forest. [http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200601/s1549685.htm]

The ACT Bushfire Memorial was commissioned by the ACT government to acknowledge the impact of the fires, and thank the many organisations and individuals who played crucial roles in the fire fighting and recovery efforts.

The memorial was designed by Canberra artists Tess Horowitz, Tony Steel and Martyn Jolly and incorporates elements requested by the ACT community. It is a journey from the day of the fire through the process of recovery, to the honouring of memory.

The entrance memorial walls are made from the community's salvaged and inscribed bricks which contain messages of grief and gratitude. Beyond the walls, a site framed by a grove of casuarinas contains red glass and metal forms that refer to the force of the firestorm and the lightning strikes that sparked the main fires. An avenue leads to an amphitheatre enclosing a pond and bubbling spring. Glass columns bordering the pond contain details from photos provided by the community which speak of memory and human resilience.

On 18 February 2006, an independent group of fire victims installed a plaque to honour the four people who died in the fires and the volunteer firefighters who fought so hard. The plaque is located at the end of the walkway to the memorial immediately before the memorial walls. Fire victims and residents held a simple ceremony to mark the occasion.

As of early March 2006, the memorial is not quite finished. Apart from the immature casuarina trees, which will take time to grow to full height, there remains landscaping and plumbing work yet to be completed. The area where the memorial is located is undergoing significant redevelopment for recreational purposes, and will not be replanted with pine forest.( Some strategies that have been put in place so this disaster will not accure again is land managment practices, The urban preimeter, The role of Government and community responsibility in bushfire management, urban desing and vegetetion and Housing desing.)


* [http://www.cmd.act.gov.au/mcleod_inquiry/Documents/Final/McLeodInquiry.pdf McLeod, Ron. 2003. Inquiry into the Operational Response to the January 2003 Bushfires in the ACT ]
* [http://web.archive.org/web/20040609114648/http://www.casa.gov.au/avreg/fsa/03mar/24-31.pdf Flight Safety Magazine article March/April 2003 on aerial bush fire fighters cached by WayBack Machine]

External links

* [http://pandora.nla.gov.au/col/c8075 Bushfires, Canberra, A.C.T., January 2003 - Australian Internet Sites] - websites in the PANDORA archive
* [http://www.courts.act.gov.au/BushfireInquiry/bushfireinquiry.htm ACT CORONER’S BUSHFIRE INQUIRY web page]
* [http://www.ga.gov.au/urban/projects/nrap/canberra_disasters.jsp Canberra Bushfires at Geoscience Australia]
* [http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/09/18/1063625157558.html?from=storyrhs "Sydney Morning Herald" report on the findings of the New South Wales Deputy Coroner]
* [http://www.theage.com.au/news/National/Firestorm-truth-buried-in-the-ashes/2005/02/05/1107476855116.html Article in "The Age" February 2005 concerning the delay in the coronial inquiry]
* [http://actbushfirecoronial.googlepages.com/ Bushfire coronial website] - Dedicated to bringing evidence directly from witnesses to the public.
* [http://canberra.yourguide.com.au/detail.asp?class=your%20say&subclass=general&story_id=542215&category=Opinion&m=12&y=2006 Opinion piece by Jack Waterford, editor of "The Canberra Times" on the outcomes of the coronial inquiry]
* [http://www.tomw.net.au/2003/enet.html Dealing with Disaster – Using new Networking Technology for Emergency Coordination] Some of the Satellite Technology Used for Mapping the Fires Image galleries
* [http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an24651258 Fighting bushfires on the Mount Franklin Road, Brindabella Ranges, on the night of 11/12 January 2003] / David Tunbridge
* [http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-vn3063920 Canberra fire damage, 18 January to 14 February 2003] / Damian McDonald, Greg Power and Loui Seselja.
* [http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an24649605 Canberra bushfires, 18 January to 14 February 2003] / Tony Miller
* [http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-vn3044812 Canberra bushfires, 2003] / Christine Thomas and Simon Mockler
* [http://www.realmtech.net/photos/Bushfire/ Canberra Bushfires 2003] / Peter Dey
* [http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2006/02/18/1573116.htm ABC News report on 18 February 2006 memorial gathering]

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