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firestorm

Remembering the Canberra Firestorm…

Amanda Whitley and Emma Grey

On 18 January 2003, a firestorm engulfed ‘the bush capital’, leaving four people dead, hundreds injured and almost 500 homes destroyed.

I recall sitting in our Narrabundah backyard that afternoon, watching the sky get increasingly dark. Ash began to rain down from the sky and, as we turned on the radio for an update, we were alarmed by the eerie wail of the emergency siren.

Although we were well out of harm’s way, we worried…the whole situation was surreal…we were a city. How could we be burning?

As the evening wore on, we tried to check in with friends, offering help where we could. We heard good and bad news. In the days that followed, the city was in a state of shock…everyone knew someone who’d been affected in one way or another.

More than a decade on, everyone that was in Canberra that day has a story to tell…this is Emma Grey’s ~ Amanda

One Saturday morning in January dawned unusually hot.

Mark had been in the garden since daybreak and the heat was getting to him by nine o’clock. I remember sitting on the front doorstep waiting for a headache pill to take effect (trust PMS to strike at the least convenient time), and watching charcoal black leaves fall from the sky into our garden.

"2003CanberraBushfires". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“2003CanberraBushfires”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The flight path to Canberra airport had been diverted over our house. As they do most summers, bushfires had been burning for a couple of weeks on the Brindabella Mountains and visibility must have been low. Still—no one had pressed the panic button, so I took the girls shopping for school shoes.

We emerged from the Plaza at lunchtime and noticed the smoke was thicker, but we’d been living with that for weeks so it didn’t concern us. Matilda wanted to show Nanna and Pa the new shoes so we called in and chatted about the spot-fires on a friend’s property south of Canberra the night before. The wind was picking up a bit and I made a move to go home.

I threw on a change of clothes for afternoon tea in trendy Manuka. I was meeting two of my closest friends, Lauren and Kate, for a catch-up. No sooner had we ordered our coffee and cake, than Lauren received a phone call from her husband. Their suburb, Duffy, was apparently on high alert for bushfires.

Bush fires? What bushfires? Not the ones on the ranges, surely? There had been no warning that these could reach urban areas. Two minutes later he phoned her again to say they were now on alert to evacuate! She pushed back her chair and was out of that restaurant in half a second, leaving Kate and I to stare at each other in confusion.

Not a minute later, Kate received a phone call to say that her suburb was on alert, roads were blocked, and our thoughts flew immediately to her children who were at home with her husband. This couldn’t be happening. Her phone rang again and it was Lauren, who yelled, ‘I’m driving towards home and looking at a huge orange firewall over the mountains in southern Tuggeranong—go home NOW!’

Kate went pale and fled, leaving me sitting alone at a table in an up-market Manuka restaurant contemplating three pieces of untouched mortal sin triple-layer chocolate mousse cake and various hot and cold beverages, thinking ‘What am I supposed to do now?’ The obvious course of action was to start scoffing the first slice, scull the cappuccino and phone our friend Jessica in Melbourne.

‘Jess—I’m in Manuka and Lauren and Kate have rushed home to evacuate from the bushfires…’

‘What?’

‘The bushfires…and I’m here by myself with all this cake…’

‘What fires?’

I mean—do I eat all three slices, or do I ask for a doggy bag—but then, what is the etiquette about doggy bags in a natural disaster? Oh! Unbelievable! Jacinta Mitchell and Sally Watkins are walking past the restaurant.’ (They persecuted our group at school and I hadn’t seen them for eleven years.) ‘Do you think I should tap on the window and ask them in to help me out with this cake?’

‘Emma! What is the story with the fires?’ Jessica pressed, with a social worker’s calmness—valiantly attempting to focus my hysteria on something other than the problem of too much cake.

‘Well—I don’t really know. Weston and Tuggeranong are on fire and half of Canberra is preparing to evacuate…’ And at the sound of my own words, common sense finally broke through and it hit me like a bullet to the head. Bushfires…evacuation…What am I doing here having a coronary over this bloody cake when I should be at home?

‘Actually, Jess—never mind. I have to go home! I’ll call you later.’

I jumped in the car, hurtled out of the underground car park and tore down the Monaro Highway, driving into what looked like the heart of the firestorm (but I wasn’t anywhere near it). An emergency warning siren I’d never heard in my life was blaring over the radio and a clearly shaken newsreader was saying: 

This is an official emergency services announcement. There has been a rapid deterioration in the bush fire situation in the ACT. Residents in the following areas [long list of just about everywhere] are on high alert and are urged to return to their homes…

Rapid deterioration? What, exactly, did that mean? On cue it suddenly became incredibly dark. Thick red-black smoke billowed over the city. Sirens were wailing, everyone was driving with their headlights on—we were in the throes of Armageddon. At least that’s what it felt like at our turn-off so I can’t begin to imagine the sight in Weston where the fires were out of control.

"ACTFB firefighters-2003Firestorm" by Graham Tidy/The Canberra Times photographer - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

“ACTFB firefighters-2003Firestorm” by Graham Tidy/The Canberra Times photographer – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I tore up our street and saw Mark standing on the front steps talking into the mobile phone. The second I pulled into the driveway he raced past me, grabbed the keys and said, ‘The depot’s under threat, I’ve got to go.’ And that was that.

I went inside, grabbed Ellie’s radio and listened in horror while we were given instructions about how to prepare our houses for the onslaught of fire and I thought, ‘But this doesn’t happen to us…’ while Matilda ran around the house in an orderly fashion shutting all the windows.

‘What are you doing, Matilda?’ I said, and she turned to me calmly and explained, ‘The lady on the radio said to shut all the windows to keep out the fire.’ With this, I collapsed into a lounge chair and thought, ‘Well—that’s a relief! At least the four-year-old in this household has the situation under control.’

Half an hour later Mark called from Weston yelling, ‘I’m surrounded by flames, the police academy is on fire, the archery range is on fire, we’ve got 2,500 litres of diesel and a storage shed full of fuel and we’re going to lose the depot…’ Then I heard a male voice shout, ‘Get out of here mate, this whole place is going up in two minutes…’

And the phone went dead.

Letting fly with a string of uncharacteristic expletives too colourful to reprint in a book that my grandmother-in-law will probably read, I set about phoning everyone I know (which was essentially Mum—several times—as everyone else was evacuating).

I was vaguely aware of Matilda wandering sensibly around the house gathering precious items, like photographs and Barbie dolls and piling them up in the study. I actually remember thinking, ‘That’s good, she’s doing that, I’m free to panic…’

Mark called from a choked Hindmarsh Drive, ‘Sorry about that, a huge fireball exploded in a pine tree, went over my head and set alight the eucalyptus I was standing next to…then a guy ran out of the fire towards me and jumped in the car and I drove him to his family…’

Big sigh! My husband, the hero.

‘Are you CRAZY—standing there beside highly flammable materials with fireballs exploding overhead…!’

But he was out of the worst of the firestorm and on his way to his parents’ house in Chifley (where the children and I had been an hour earlier) because the paddock over their back fence was ablaze.

‘Are you okay?’ he asked.

‘We’re fine. Everything is completely under control here. Go to your parents,’ I instructed, with a significant degree of faux togetherness.

‘Look after the house!’ he commanded, and the phone went dead again.

Right. The house…

It dawned on me that I was the only responsible adult present, but unfortunately I was neither feeling grown-up nor acting in the slightest way responsibly. It also occurred to me when I found Matilda opening one of the windows she had previously closed and yelling, ‘Fire, fire, go away!’ at the top of her voice, that I should probably take measures to reassure the children.

I also realised that I should buy a new hose. And some storage containers for the considerable collection of important things I started helping Matilda to assemble. At the same time I was searching in vain for the calm control I had exhibited in all previous emergency situations. There was the night Minstrel the dog was in the throes of the death rattle and I stoically transported him to the vet to be put down. And when Rachel and I heroically raced Mum to casualty when she was choking on a chicken bone, and that other incident when my grandmother stood on a crochet hook… But then I realised I had never had to deal with the sort of chaos that was unfolding second by second over the radio, accompanied by the surreal darkness, smoke and absence of Indiana Mark.

Mum, meanwhile, was struggling to motivate Dad, who apparently suffers from the opposite of panic in situations like these and wouldn’t budge from the lounge. She practically had the esky stuffed with emergency rations of gourmet sandwiches by this stage, and it was all she could do to get him outside and on the roof to ram wet shredded sheets down the drainpipes.

With their house eventually attended to, they came round to do the same with ours, freeing me to gather essentials from the local shops. The shopping docket reveals a lot about my thought process in an emergency:

  • 250 g dairy milk chocolate
  • dark chocolateTim Tams
  • Cheezels
  • sun-dried capsicum dip
  • watering can
  • hose
  • washing basket
  • six-pack of 99% fat-free yoghurt
  • aromatherapy lavender scented candle.

Half way down an aisle I received a call saying a car-load of refugees from Chifley were on their way (including another family who had evacuated there from Kambah) so I also grabbed:

  • 1 kg mince
  • salad
  • rice
  • sausages
  • Coke (caffeine-free and diet)
  • two spare light bulbs
  • the latest Women’s Weekly

At the checkout, I managed to engender widespread panic amongst fellow shoppers and staff, regaling them (and others who gathered nearby to eavesdrop) with my cake story, the adventures of Mark and the fireball, the fact that my friends may have lost their homes, and several other panicky snippets. I left the place reeling in a state of shock and headed home again under a midnight-black sky at 4.30 pm. I struggled in with the groceries, only to learn that the Chifley party had been forced to turn back—blocked by a wall of fire at the end of their street.

Oh great! My husband was trapped by fire for a second time in an hour—this time with my beloved in-laws—and I was, yet again, inundated with surplus food and starting to panic. The full extent of the disaster was only beginning to unravel when we got the first images on the news—and when I spoke with Lauren who had left their suburb with the house behind them in flames and very little hope.

Ellie was going crazy with the Cheezels by this stage. I looked out the window and saw them both playing jump-rope in the backyard with the new hose—black leaves raining down on them, smoke, darkness—their father and grandparents trapped in an inferno…And where were the diaries I wrote when I was fourteen? This, unbelievably, became my new focus! I had to have those diaries. I would not lose that part of my life and so I ripped apart every corner of the house in a frantic search. When Mark came home—covered in ash and soot—he wondered how the place had been ravaged by disaster, when the fires themselves were kilometres off.

By nine o’clock that night I was exhausted. We were glued to the radio and becoming marginally concerned about fires to the south at Richardson. ‘Marginally concerned’ because once Mark walked in I was instantly transformed into a rational adult. We eventually fell asleep with the radio and TV on listening for updates.

At four o’clock in the morning I woke up feeling nauseous, and for the next twelve hours was combating Rachel’s gastro virus, which subsequently spread to Ellie (as everything does). This is just what you don’t need when fires are threatening to jump the highway to your south, and you still can’t locate your teenage diaries.

Mark, meanwhile, was called back to work to move trucks of smouldering mulch to another location as they posed some kind of threat (possibly to the fuel stores that miraculously survived). He reentered the disaster zone and was shocked by what he found and the extent of the tragedy.

Sunday was spent largely in disbelief and thankfulness, and the weather was strangely calm. Firebreaks were being dug all around the western side of the city, but it remained to be seen whether they would have any effect.

Mark left me in charge the next day while his boss flew in from Melbourne to inspect the devastation.

After three days of waiting and watching I knew the drill. Provided I didn’t have to climb up on the roof (fear of heights) and could keep the girls from drowning in the baths that remained full of water, I knew I’d cope even if the worst should happen.

For us, thankfully, it didn’t.

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Amanda Whitley

Amanda Whitley is the founder and director of HerCanberra. In her 'spare time', she instructs zumba, loves to cook (and eat), and wrangles two gorgeous little girls. She's done everything from present the tv news to operate a stop and go sign and is passionate about connecting Canberra women. More about the Author

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Emma Grey

Emma Grey is the Canberra-based author of ‘Wits’ End Before Breakfast! Confessions of a Working Mum’ and ‘Unrequited: Girl Meets Boy Band’. She’s director of the life-balance consultancy, WorkLifeBliss and co-founder of a fresh approach to time-management, My 15 Minutes. She lives just over the ACT border with her two teen daughters and young son. More about the Author

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