Fifteen Years

Go just over a minute in for footage of firemen driving through the streets around here. The video is from the middle of a summer’s day – not nighttime!

I’ve mentioned this disaster before, but today is the fifteenth anniversary of the firestorm that tore through Canberra, Australia’s capital city. Unlike other bushfires, this one burnt into the city itself, claiming lives and destroying many hundreds of houses, other buildings, and even national establishments.

It was the first time a fire tornado was recorded.

2003_bushfire_progress-MJC 2003 Canberra Firestorm Graphic

In this freakish graphic, you can see how 70% of the Territory was overtaken by fire in a few days. I was in the city when it began, and then we raced home to the top of the big patch of yellowish suburbia at the bottom when it got really bad. The fire was stopped two streets from me by the water-bombing helicopters. Many houses, some abandoned cars on the main roads, and all of the bush and national parks around us burnt.

^^What Parliament House looked like when we realised there was a serious problem at home, and got in the car to drive back. The smoke is coming from the burning suburbs near us. It was about 3pm here.

This was before Facebook or any of that, so we all had the radios on, listening to the updates. Every few minutes a loud siren would play – like we didn’t already know how bad it was!

We sat there all afternoon and night – everyone in every household in southern and western Canberra – hoses in hands, spread out across the front and back gardens and on the roofs, watching to see if any of the embers caught fire in a tree or a bush – or on a house. Ash and embers rained down on us the whole time – the sound of all these things dropping from above us was terrifying, and there was nothing we could do about it. For a whole week leading up to the fire black, burnt leaves had been falling from the sky and covering everything. However, the New South Wales fire people didn’t send a warning (to the Australian Capital Territory) that the fire had jumped containment lines and was about to hit us. Most of our Territory is bushland and national park. Eucalyptus and pine trees – so flammable.

National Science and Technology Centre Canberra Enlighten 2013 Sonya Heaney

In the image above – of the National Science and Technology Centre during the Enlighten Canberra festival – you can see a statue taken from the wreckage of the Mount Stromlo Observatory. It now lives in the centre of town.

The images below (from Wikimedia Commons) are from before the sky turned blacker than night, and then bright red. All the photos are of places I was on that day. When everything went black, it started raining embers, and the flames started rolling down the mountains that surround us, things got really scary in our part of town. (What looks like lights in the first picture is all fire.)

2003_Canberra_Firestorm-Woden 2003 Canberra Firestorm. 18th January 2003 Canberra_hills-18-01-2003

2003_Canberra_Firestorm-Woden Photo of Woden Town Centre during the height of the 2003 Canberra Firestorm. 18th January 2003

2003_Canberra_Firestorm- 2003 Canberra Firestorm. 18th January 2003 Canberra_hills-18-01-2003 2003CanberraBushfires.

10th Anniversary of the Canberra Firestorm



Today is the tenth anniversary of the Canberra Firestorm – when bushfires jumped containment lines across the border and came into Australia’s capital city, killing four people, burning 70% of the Australian Capital Territory, and destroying more than 500 homes and buildings. It was also the first time a fire tornado was recorded. Propelled by 40 °C (104 °F) temperatures and extreme winds, unlike other fires that reach regional areas, the firestorm in Canberra brought destruction to inner city suburbs and national monuments.

Unfortunately all of my pictures from that day have disappeared somewhere! Go HERE to see a scary graphic of how the fires jumped the border and came into the city.



Canberra is a unique city, as it was designed to have the bush running all the way through it. You see kangaroos jumping around the streets, and you can go on long bushwalks without even leaving the suburbs. Go to one of the mountain lookouts in the city and you can see far more trees than houses. There were also pine plantations growing up to the edges of the west of the city. Eucalyptus and pine = not a good combination in fire conditions.


The pine plantation burning. Credit SMH.

For days leading up to the fires, Canberra was clouded in smoke. Everything was yellow, and the sun glowed orange and pink, making everything look really strange. On the actual day of the fires we were in the car, headed to Lake Burley Griffin in the centre of the city. On the way there, the radio reported rumours of homes on fire in the suburb of Duffy, but we didn’t really believe it; since when did the capital city burn?


This is what we saw from the lake – but I can’t find our (better!) pictures. Credit.

However, when we got to the lake, conditions were atrocious. A few minutes later, a huge black cloud of smoke came across the sky, blown over from where suburbs in Weston Creek were on fire.

So we hurried home. By then the sky was completely black, and the hills in our suburbs were burning.



When we got home it was raining ash and embers, and the sky turned bright red.

Because of helicopters water-bombing over us, the fire was stopped a few streets from our house. We spent the whole night up, listening to the emergency sirens on the radio and waiting to see if we needed to evacuate.

One thing that was completely infuriating about that day was that – as usual – the ‘national’ news out of Sydney didn’t even bother reporting anything was happening in the nation’s capital until after the worst of the destruction. I remember being so mad, seeing fires burning all around us outside, and the Sydney news reporting their usual local human interest (read: cute baby animal) stories!

Ten years later it is another unbearably hot day. There have been small fires burning in the district on and off for a few weeks. However, I think people learnt a lot that day, and now we’re better prepared.