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Behind the smoke

Memories of 2003's fires still evoke emotion at The Canberra Times.

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There are many defining images of the 2003 firestorm - the flames, the silent, smoking forests of naked black trees, the sight of hundreds of Canberrans camped out on the floors of emergency centres.

But for The Canberra Times staff, there's another one - a cafe filled with people, every one of whom is reading a copy of the newspaper. And when you remember that just 10 years ago, the results of your long days and nights of news gathering, writing and production couldn't be seen until the next morning, there could be no sight more encouraging.

The 2003 bushfires were remarkable for various reasons, not least of which was the fact that a newspaper was produced, printed and distributed in a city struck by disaster. In those circumstances, it's little wonder that the first two editions of the newspaper to detail the devastation sold out and had to be reprinted.

If you sniffed the air last week as you were going off to bed, it's possible the smoky aroma brought you hurtling, however briefly, back through the past decade to the night of January 18, 2003. Smells are potent like that.


Much has been made of how terrifyingly similar the weather conditions have been to that night when Canberra was brought to its knees. The steadily building heat, the erratic, gale-force winds, the lack of recent rain. It's enough to give any longtime Canberra resident - or, indeed, any Australian who has been in the vicinity of suburban bushfires - the jitters.

But, apart from the fact that Canberra is no longer in the grip of a seven-year drought, many things have changed since that night.

For starters, the switchboard phones are no longer ringing off the hook with members of the public desperate for more information, as they did 10 years ago. As The Canberra Times staff converged on the newsroom that Saturday - many on their day off - people of all ages were calling in a state of panic. With information coming in sluggishly, and all reporters out on the beat, most callers were advised to listen to the radio instead.

Today, a person need only log on to, which, last week, was being updated every 10 minutes as online journalists and producers live-blogged the latest developments as they unfolded.

Of course, many things haven't changed at all since 2003. The peculiar energy of a newsroom under stress is still palpable. Journalists are still out there at the scene, working to transmit information to the public in the most useful way possible. The same journalists, finally stopping for breath after the event is over, will still wonder at their own ability to work under so much pressure.

This is still the case for news reporters the world over - it's just that the medium has changed.

Canberra Times reporter Megan Doherty has clear memories of that Saturday, wandering around Duffy in the post-apocalyptic haze. Although it was late afternoon, the sky was completely dark.

"The thing I remember most is how quiet it was," she says.

"There was lots of dust but there wasn't a lot of noise. The houses were in rubble, there was gas hissing and people with hoses, wandering around in shock. The main thing was seeing all these people not being able to get back in to their homes."

Sunday Canberra Times editor Scott Hannaford, then a daily reporter, remembers driving past Mount Taylor with a photographer, and feeling uneasy as they passed several burning vehicles. "I was just starting to think, 'this is dicey, we should leave', when a fireball bounced off the bonnet of the car - those little red Corollas we used to drive. That's when we reversed and got out of there," he says.

Former reporter Stacey Lucas, now living in London, remembers a stab of fear as the streets around her in Holder were suddenly all in flames.

"When we walked back into the newsroom I was filthy with soot, my lungs hurt, my eyes were smarting, my skin felt stretched and burnt from the heat and I was in a bit of a daze," she says.

"But we had a paper to get out, and the place was buzzing with people who'd come in on their day off to help. So I just sat down among them and started typing."

Back then, it was rare for journalists to carry laptops, cumbersome as they were 10 years ago. You would take notes and record conversations, and, depending on the time, phone copy back into the newsroom, where somebody on the other end of the line would actually take down your words.

Reporters and editors alike remember working long into the night for days at a time, while the newspaper's printing deadline was pushed back again and again. A decision was made early in the evening to scrap most of the content that was already been planned for Sunday's paper, and just focus on the fires.

The decision was worth it: Hannaford has that clear memory of eating breakfast in a cafe in the days after the fires, and looking up from his coffee to see every single person in the cafe reading The Canberra Times.

Back in 2003, the edition of January 19 - the day after the fires - sold out in minutes, and 10,000 more copies were printed. The same thing happened the following day. But it hasn't happened since.

Nowadays, people are still checking the newspaper when they wake up, but they're just as likely to be accessing The Canberra Times on their PC, smartphone or iPad.

Online journalist Hamish Boland-Rudder, who during last week's fire alert sat glued to his PC, live-blogging updates as they came in, says journalists have a more important role than ever to play when major things happen.

"There's so much misinformation out there," he says, referring to at least two tweets last week announcing - incorrectly - that Bungendore had been evacuated.

"We're still trying our best to be the fact-checkers and get the right information out as quickly as possible."

And the payoff is different; instead of seeing noses buried between the pages and looking to circulation figures, it's possible at any one time to see how many people are currently reading a story online.

Of course, the phone still rings - there is still a generation of people whose first thought is to phone the local paper for information. These same people will still buy a copy of the newspaper the following morning, as final validation of what went on the night before.

But many more will log on to the website and watch the news unfold as it happens.