Phil Cheney, the former head of the CSIRO's bushfire unit. Photo: Jay Cronan
Canberra is at significant risk of again losing lives and hundreds of homes to bushfire because authorities have lost the ability to conduct fuel reduction burns on the scale necessary to protect the city, say scientists, land managers and property owners affected by the 2003 firestorm.
To mark the 10th anniversary of the fires that claimed four lives and destroyed nearly 500 homes, The Canberra Times has interviewed 40 Canberrans directly affected by or involved in fighting the blaze. Their moving stories feature in Faces of the Fire, a special video presentation launched on Friday at canberratimes.com.au and on the Canberra Times iPad app.
- Residents remain positive
- Twisted metal and blackened ruins are all that remain of Ederveen
- Bungendore brigade takes a (brief) breather
- Feeding stock is the next problem
- Ten years on, we're better prepared
Corin Forest Mountain Recreation resort owner Merrick Watters suffered significant damage to his business in January 2003. It was one of the first places in the ACT hit when the fires swept through the Brindabellas. Mr Watters said since then there had been a significant build-up of fuel in the nature park around his property and little effort to reduce it.
''We're just waiting for the next fire; it's going to come. Even though it looks pretty green, it looked all pretty green out there 10 years ago too, so we're sitting on tenterhooks.''
Phil Cheney, the former head of the CSIRO's bushfire research unit for more than 25 years, said complaints from the public about smoke from backburning had made it virtually impossible to conduct burns on the scale required to protect suburbs.
''If you are going to be effective against these very large fires from multiple ignitions, you have to burn something like 8 per cent of the countryside, and that means you'd be seeing substantial burns going up in the mountains every autumn. I haven't seen one substantial burn since the Canberra fires,'' Mr Cheney said.
''For various reasons we have lost the capacity to do controlled burning on the scale that is necessary. In my early experiments in the early '60s we burnt on Bruce ridge and the lower slopes of Black Mountain in the middle of summer. If anyone tried to do that today there'd be an outcry.''
But ACT Parks and Conservation Service fire manager Neil Cooper said the ACT now had a world-class fuel management program in place and it would be nice for that to be recognised by the public.
''It was an event that was always going to happen, and it's an event that will happen again. What we're trying to do is make damn sure that we are prepared to the best way possible to minimise the adverse impact of any future fire,'' Mr Cooper said.
ACT Police and Emergency Services Minister Simon Corbell, who fought the 2003 fires as a volunteer, said the ACT now had a world-class strategic bushfire fuel management plan that made the territory much safer than it was a decade ago.
''Tens of thousands of hectares across the territory slashed, mowed, grazed or burnt. That never occurred before 2003,'' Mr Corbell said.
''There will always be a risk of a major fire impacting on the western interface of the ACT - that's a consequence of the Australian landscape. Are we better prepared for that incident? Yes we are. Are we doing much more to mitigate the potential of that sort of incident? Yes we are.''