Bronte Forrester, 17, who lost her home in the 2003 fires leaves a flower in the pool at the bushfire memorial on Friday. Photo: Rohan Thomson
Canberrans have been urged to harness the energy and community spirit that followed the January 18 firestorm to tackle ongoing problems in the national capital such as homelessness as a lasting legacy from the disaster.
The importance of family, friends and a strong community was also emphasised at Friday’s commemoration ceremony to mark 10 years since the firestorm in which four people died, almost 500 homes were destroyed, hundreds of people were injured and thousand of animals killed.
Speaking at the ceremony at the ACT Bushfire Memorial, Chief Minister Katy Gallagher acknowledged the four people who had died - Dorothy McGrath, 77; Alison Tener, 38; Doug Fraser, 61 and Peter Brooke, 73.
Everyone crowds into the shade at the official commemoration of the 2003 bush fires.
‘‘We pay our deepest respect to those who lost so much that day, for lives and families that were changed forever,’’ Ms Gallagher said.
‘‘But we also give thanks for everything we have: our strength and resilience as a city, a proud city, home to a community that comes together and that will always remember January 18, 2003 as a defining date in Canberra’s ongoing story.’’
A touching, silent tribute was also made to Ms Tener by her then husband David and their sons, Adam, 24, Jason, 22, and Simon, 19; who left a bright pink bunch of flowers for her at one of the remembrance walls at the memorial.
Recovery ... Jane Smyth, whose home in Chapman was destroyed in the firestorm said residents who were helped by others in the catastrophe wanted to give back to the community. Photo: Rohan Thomson
Those at the ceremony were also invited to place flowers on the reflective pond, white for remembrance and purple for pride. Among those who did was Bronte Forrester, 17, whose family home in Chapman was destroyed in the firestorm.
Only seven at the time of the firestorm, she remembered a panicked trip back to Canberra from out of town and later asking her parents, in the innocent way only a child can do, ‘‘Why are you crying? It’s only a house.’’
‘‘Obviously, it was very devastating for everyone but it’s nice to think of what’s important; and family’s important, not the things that we possess,’’ she said, 10 years later.
Special memorial of the tenth anniversary of the Canberra fires
The Canberra Bushfire Commemoration service at the Bushfire Memorial. Brooke Winslade (17) of Duffy. Photo: Rohan Thomson
More than 200 people attended the ceremony on Friday morning when the temperature had already reached 34 degrees and a total fire ban day had been declared.
Jane Smyth, whose home in Chapman was destroyed in the firestorm and who was a community representative during the recovery, told the gathering that residents who had been helped in the months and years after the firestorm now wanted to give back. They had suggested homelessness be the focus of that same wonderful community response that followed the bushfires.
Mrs Smyth said it was ‘‘unacceptable’’ that more than 1000 people, many of them children, would be homeless tonight in Canberra, ‘‘this beautiful, privileged city’’.
People are leaving flowers in the pond at the memorial.
‘‘In the days and the months and years which followed our losses in 2003 a huge coordinated effort was made. Could we in 2013 find some of that same energy, generosity and compassion for our most vulnerable?’’ she said.
Mrs Smyth also acknowledged that many people felt gratitude 10 years later.
‘‘For the hard work of so many - the large initiatives and the small gestures - we say thank you. To individuals, groups and organisations who helped us, we say thank you. From villages, properties, neighbourhoods and homes, we say thank you,’’ she said.
‘‘Thanks from all of us to all of us. Together we got through it. We can be proud. We did it well. We proved to ourselves and others that Canberra, our nation’s capital, our city, has a very big heart.’’
Retired Catholic bishop Pat Power also remembered well the outstanding response to the firestorm, starting from when he visited an evacuation centre at Narrabundah College on the night of the disaster, when emergency services, charities and individuals were working to support people.
‘‘I saw Canberra at its best that night,’’ he said.
Bishop Power praised the emergency services personnel who put their life on their line to protect Canberra. ‘‘We owe them the greatest debt of gratitude,’’ he said.
‘‘Today the wish of every person taking part in this commemoration is that healing and peace will come to those still troubled by the consequences of the 2003 bushfires and Canberra’s valiant response to the fires will inspire future generations in the challenges which lie ahead.’’
Young people from the Chain Reaction group from the Weston Creek Uniting Church sang at the gathering. One of them, Brooke Winslade, 17, of Duffy, was overwhelmed by the emotion of the day.
‘‘I didn’t realise, because I was really little, that so much happened to the community. So many houses and memories were gone,’’ she said. ‘‘It just broke my heart.’’
Animals were not forgotten. Rohan Samara, a member of the Rivers bushfire brigade, brought along his dog Leo and miniature pig Wilber.
‘‘I think today we can reflect on what was lost but also look at the positives of how strong the community became,’’ he said.
Karn Waterhouse walked her horse down from a nearby property off the Cotter Road. ‘‘I think today is about community healing,’’ she said.
Bob and Louise Davidson and their adult children Geoff and Kim also attended the service. They rebuilt their destroyed home in Rivett.
‘‘There are two things that came back to me - how important family is and just the way the Canberra community responded, it was extraordinary. It didn’t create a community, it confirmed that it existed,’’ Mr Davidson said.
A brick in the wall of the memorial, placed by residents during its construction almost eight years ago, said it all. These people were ‘‘Not Victims’’. They were ‘‘Survivors’’.