Canberra Centre Masthead

Tears, Laughter, Champagne: The Canberra firestorm 15 years on

Karen Downing

“Untouched plastic pegs were ‘like jewels’ in the blackened garden.”

A few weeks ago we wrote about a group of nine local women who had announced their cookbook come memoir; Tears, Laughter, Champagne: A story of friendship forged through fire and food.

These nine women forged an unbreakable bond in the weeks and months following the 2003 Canberra bushfires, brought together by the one thing they had in common: loss. They are the Singed Sisters – eight women whose homes were destroyed by the fires and one woman who turned her life upside down to help them.

Tears, Laughter, Champagne is a full colour, soft cover cookbook come memoir featuring recipes and interviews with the Singed Sisters. The book is based on the phases of their journey, from Devastation to Celebration. The accompanying recipes reflect these phases, from the healthy and hearty essentials that kept their families fed in the weeks immediately after the fire to the sweets and indulgences that helped them to warm rebuilt homes.

So today, on the anniversary of those devastating bushfires, we’re honoured to publish an excerpt from the book, written by Karen Downing, one of the Singed Sisters. 

“On Sunday morning Ric and I left Daniel and Jack with Becca and Bella and their mum and took my brother’s car over to Duffy. Police were checking driver’s licences before they let us into Eucumbene Drive – there were ‘disaster tourists’ about already – but as we turned into our road a close friend who lived in Holder came out of it. He stopped the car to speak to us, but couldn’t. All he could do was shake his head. We had a video camera with us and took footage of the street as we drove slowly towards home. You can hear us saying as we drive slowly past, ‘One house gone, two ok, three houses gone, one ok’. It was such a patchy pattern of devastation. And then our home. It had collapsed in on itself. Our neighbour’s houses on either side were simply rubble, the house behind us similarly flattened, but the one next door to that was unburnt with its plastic garden furniture standing outside. The wooden decking around our pool was still smouldering and continued to over the next couple of days.

We showed the children the video and talked to them about what to expect before we took them to see the house, which they were all eager to do. The devastation that the fire had wreaked was certainly fascinating. Pots and pans were in the laundry sink on the floor below the kitchen. Massive steel roof beams now curved like playground slides. A metal bunk bed was a blackened skeleton. An aluminium ladder in the garage was a beautiful molten river. Books in the rubble, now pure white, turned to powder when we touched them. Champagne bottles under the stairs had popped their corks and protected a wicker basket of oranges, which were ash-coated but otherwise unaffected.

Liz W and Dave also checked their house before taking Matt and Leah to see it. Matt was curious and full of questions. ‘What’s this, dad?’ ‘It’s the fridge that has fallen through from the kitchen above.’ ‘What’s this, mum?’ ‘That would be my brand new, thousand dollars’ worth of steel belted radial tyres.’ They were now coils of wire on the garage floor. Liz’s friend Sarah had prepared Leah well with lots of positive ways to think about what had happened, like getting a new wardrobe of clothes. But she was not prepared for just how little was left. Her wooden-floored bedroom, which had been the sanctuary in which she spent endless happy hours, was now unrecognisable. Leah did not look any further – she sat out on the nature strip in an old beach chair. Julie and Tuan’s children did not handle it well either. They had tried to prepare Emily, Sarah, Dan and Maddy before they drove them in, but when they saw the ruined house all four burst into tears. Julie did not even have tissues in the car and had to go to a neighbour’s house and ask for a box.

Jane left her children with friends at the coast for her first visit to the house and only told Tom, Geordie, Ben and Felix the extent of the devastation when she returned after a day of going through the ruins trying to identify things, ‘solving mysteries’, and sifting for anything that could be saved. An old trunk of her mother’s, full of family treasures had a pile of coins melted into its lid – ‘Ah, a handbag left on top’ – and a ceramic cherub in Geordie’s room was still intact. There was, recalls Jane, ‘a fascination in seeing how windows had melted, there was beauty in melted aluminium and bits of loved crockery’. Untouched plastic pegs were ‘like jewels’ in the blackened garden. Jane looked for her mother’s pearls and her grandfather’s gold watch kept in a drawer in the dresser. The pearls were all there and ‘exquisitely burnt – a black, purple sheen to them’. But they crumbled when she touched them. Initially, says Jane, there was a sense of wonder rather than loss.

At the book launch from left to right: Jane Fitzgerald, Chandani Prammer, Peta Mackenzie Davey, Liz Walter, Annabel Crabb, Karen Downing, Liz Tilley, Alison Mills, Sue Kukolic and Julie Pham. Photo: Grace Costa.

Our opportunities for scavenging, however, were short-lived. Just days after the bushfires, firefighters deemed our remaining walls unsafe and knocked them in. Uncapped sewers at Peta’s place curtailed their fossicking. Paloma was seriously angry when not allowed back to the house. Paloma had, says Peta, been hunting intently and had found ‘extraordinary things’. Liz W and Dave spent two days in the ‘archaeological dig’ of their garage into which the rest of their house had collapsed but where they had a safe and a metal strong box for valuables. And then the authorities realised that the age of affected suburbs meant a very real risk of asbestos in the rubble and all digging through ruins stopped.

Years later I can still recount the inventory of what remained. We had scavenged the melted ladder, a hanging rack of cutlery, a small Chinese warrior figurine, a rabbit’s water bowl, some outdoor plants in pots. We had left the house with a change of clothes for me and Daniel and Jack, one toy for Jack, my handbag and toiletries bag, and the wedding dress I had bought the weekend before. Liz T had her grandfather’s Second World War glass clock and their front door knocker. Liz W had some very blackened antique gold jewellery in her strongbox.”

At the table from left to right: Seated – Chandani Prammer, Liz Tilley, Alison Mills, Karen Downing and Sue Kukolic. Standing – Liz Walter, Jane Fitzgerald, Peta Mackenzie Davey and Julie Pham. Photo: Grace Costa.

If you’d like to purchase the book, there are a variety of signings happening today around Canberra:

  • 12-2pm at Dymocks in the city
  • 3-5pm at The Markets in Wanniassa 
  • 6-8pm at Beyond Q in Weston

Or click here to see where the book will be stocked for sale.

The laundry in the kitchen sink. Image: Karen Downing.

Feature image via Wikimedia Commons


Karen Downing

Karen Downing is a historian and publisher, proud Canberran, and one of the hundreds of people who found themselves rebuilding homes and lives after the 2003 Canberra bushfires. She graduated with a PhD from the Australian National University in 2011 and her first book, Restless Men Masculinity and Robinson Crusoe, 1788-1840 was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014. In Tears, Laughter, Champagne, Karen tells her own story of recovery and those of eight women who became treasured friends on that journey. More about the Author