Evacuated from Lanyon just after saying "I do", James Hibberson and Alexandra Bagnara married on the day of the Canberra bushfires.
“It’s still probably one of the best days of my life.”
Alexandra Bagnara’s memories of January 18, 2003, are not typical of most Canberrans. It was her wedding day, and she was to marry man of her dreams, James Hibberson, in the early afternoon at Lanyon Homestead.
“I was completely oblivious to what was going on,” Ms Bagnara recalled.
“It was really quite far off in the distance and I think, like many Canberrans, we were just unaware of the situation.
“There were roadblocks towards the venue and we figured that if there were any issues, we wouldn’t have been allowed through.”
The wedding photos from the day, which Ms Bagnara describes as “spectacular”, tell the story as well as any words. There is the beautiful bride, the beaming bridesmaid, the proud father – but all encased in an eerie orange glow.
Ms Bagnara said it was a small wedding, and, despite the fires, most people still made it to the 1pm ceremony.
Vows and rings were exchanged at the homestead – a venue the couple had frequented while courting – but as celebrations began, the brevity of the firestorm was thrust upon them.
“The guests were coming to congratulate us and the SES representatives came down to the venue to evacuate the staff from Lanyon and asked us to leave as well,” Ms Bagnara said.
They had originally planned a high tea reception at Lanyon, but it was left for the firefighters as they returned to Mr Hibberson’s mother’s home for an impromptu gathering before the newlywed’s evening flight to Sydney, en route to Vanuatu for their honeymoon.
“The only time we got a really good understanding after the evacuation was when we flew out that evening,” she said. From the air, the plume of ash and smoke over Canberra looked “like a mushroom cloud”.
“I remember that evening taking off the makeup in the hotel room, wondering how did I get mascara on my forehead, then I realised it was actually ash,” she said.
While the couple are now separated, Ms Bagnara still remembers January 18, 2003 as a good day. But she knows for many Canberrans it is a date that will be forever associated with tragedy.
“Even though it was a pretty special day for me, there were a lot of people who lost their homes and lost their loved ones.
“[But] I just remember being overwhelmed by the love and support of my friends and family, and the thought that the man of my dreams was going to be at the end of the, albeit ashy, aisle.”