ACT News


Powering inferno: how a nightmare came true

Ten years ago this weekend, Canberra faced what turned into its worst disaster, reports JOHN THISTLETON.

A DECADE ago, afternoon thunderstorms sprayed hundreds of lightning strikes across the mountain ranges from Victoria's north-east through to NSW and the ACT.

From a satellite picture at 3.40pm on January 8, they were small pinheads of brilliant yellow that mostly fizzled out. Others were lethal, including one landing on a dry eastern slope above the Goodradigbee River, striking a 15-metre tall red stringy bark tree.

The electricity sliced open the bark, following the grain of the pole-straight trunk to the ground, where it fused silica in the shale soil.

Still standing, the scorched tree started a fire. Strong westerly winds blew the flames up the slope, setting alight trees on its way to the peaks along the Webbs Ridge fire trail.

From the Mount Coree fire tower, observer Brett Finn had an eagle's view of the ridges, rivers, water catchments and fire trails. Finn saw smoke columns behind the ridge about 4pm. He was looking at the infant stages of the deadly McIntyres Hut fire, about 15 minutes after the lightning struck.

In the sweltering 34 degree heat, three other significant lightning-strike fires started about the same time across the ACT border in Namadgi National Park near Bendora Hill, 15 kilometres from the Bendora Dam, at Stockyard Spur and Mount Gingera. National Parks ranger Robert Hunt saw smoke further east in Baldy Range.


These outbreaks, other spot blazes and lightning fires elsewhere in NSW put fire controllers across a wide region on alert. By late afternoon, the fires began spewing smoke that cloaked the region in eerie burnt orange for days to come.

Glowing wind-propelled embers landed up to 15 kilometres east of the fire's origin. The flames grew higher and stronger over the following days, fooling many of the people who tried to stop them, and frying their reputations.

Gaining in intensity, the fires destroyed the old forest communities at Pierces Creek and Uriarra, fracturing the firefighters' relationships for life.

As early as 5.30pm, ominous reports to area manager Julie Crawford at Queanbeyan warned that the McIntyres Hut fire was formidable. She knew other blazes had started in the area, but at that stage declined to send in crews.

Spreading from near Webbs Ridge, 12 kilometres from the ACT, the McIntyres Hut fire was visible from a helicopter, crackling through a dry eucalyptus forest and up the west-facing slopes, lighting fresh spot fires on its way across 200 hectares. Brindabella landowner and captain of the Brindabella local fire brigade Peter Smith believed bushfire tankers could have got access to the fire on that day or the following day. A brigade member for 30 years, he had 18 members and four tankers ready, but they were not used to attack the blaze.

Milder weather arrived about 8pm, about the time National Parks and Wildlife Service ranger Scott Seymour, back from an aerial sweep over the flames with colleague Rob Hunt, briefed NSW and ACT chiefs in Queanbeyan.

Crawford, the service's area manager with fire experience going back to 1979, had called in others too, including long-time firefighter Peter Lucas-Smith, the ACT's fire chief since 1986. Lucas-Smith, an incident controller at 10 major bushfires and hundreds of smaller ones, told the meeting about the territory's fires. Also present was district fire controller Bruce Arthur, a former army field engineer who later retrained as an army firefighter.

Rather than directly attacking the McIntyres Hut fire, they opted for broad containment lines using the Goodradigbee River to the west, a powerline fire trail to the south and a fire-break on Brindabella Park's eastern perimeter.

They decided to burn an area of 10,000 hectares, but as later events showed, this was an ambitious target, given they had about seven days before extreme weather arrived.

An expert on fire behaviour, Phil Cheney, believes this was a critical blunder. ''It would have been relatively straightforward for fire crews using hand-tools to control the western perimeter of the fire west of the Lowells Flat fire trail, an area of about one hectare and around 500 metres of hand line in easy terrain,'' he said.

The Deputy NSW State Coroner, Carl Milovanovich, later found the decision was correct. But the ACT Supreme Court last month found the decision not to attack the McIntyres Hut and Baldy Range fires earlier was unreasonable.

The McIntyres Hut fire became the biggest of all the blazes in the region, generating the unprecedented inferno that hit Canberra on January 18.

Meanwhile the Bendora fire started in a tall alpine ash forest with a south-east aspect that sheltered it from north-west winds. It travelled slowly in forests last burnt in January 1979.

Crew on contract helicopter Firebird 7 saw the fire about 4pm. Flames were on the ground and running up tree trunks. The ACT Parks' Brett McNamara was called, but was too far away.

Two tankers arrived about 5.50pm and ran out hoses, with one putting out flames with water. About an hour later, incident controller Odile Arman arrived, having called her father about 5pm to say she could not attend a family gathering to celebrate her birthday. She knew the remote water catchment area, could not see flames at first, but burning timber crashing to the ground told her it was close.

Trained and willing to lead, Arman was appointed Parks brigade captain the year before. When she saw the fire, the flames were half a metre high, burning slowly through large mountain gum and brown barrel eucalypts. Further into the fire, flames fed off layers of bark, rising two metres up tree edges.

From the air, SouthCare helicopter's crew told Arman the fire had a 750-metre front, which she understood to be one flank of the fire. SouthCare water-bombed for three hours before darkness fell.

After a day in Firebird 7, buffeted by turbulence, logistics officer Dave Ingram radioed the Emergency Services Bureau communications centre at 7.31pm, saying the fire was about 500 square metres in size. In fact it was 10 times that big, as he said a year later. But at the time, Lucas-Smith was misled.

Broad-area burning in the mountains had stopped in the mid-1980s, leaving fuel to pile up to about 25 tonnes per hectare. Lots of fibrous bark on trees, fine twigs, dead branches, crisp bark and dry leaves sat on the slopes in intense heat. A mere 20 hectares out of 120,000 hectares in the national park had been subject to any form of fuel reduction.

The ACT forests' Cliff Stevens told Arman not to walk the fire alone because of the falling timber. But about 7pm she walked around assessing its size. Despite two helicopters in the air at different times, no one could say how large an area it was burning.

At the ACT incident control room, operations manager Tony Graham, who had little information on the fire, later recounted: ''I guess one of our key concerns was whether or not we were going to get more smoke sightings over and above those we knew were already in place.''

Graham, who had spent 21 years in the navy, mostly in catering, had some experience as an incident controller, but had never fought a fire by holding a rake or hoe. He was an effective controller of resources, a subsequent inquiry was told.

Arman, a ranger at Namadgi from 1984 to 1995, and experienced with remote fires, was under the pump. ''There were a lot of issues I was thinking about at the time, and I certainly felt that night we wouldn't have been able to contain the fire - perhaps someone with more experience might have felt, thought a different case,'' she said.

''And because it was night-time, because of the terrain, because the crews had been working since 7.30 that morning - well, I don't know about the Gungahlin crews because they're volunteers - but certainly our staff, both forestry and park's staff, had been working since 7.30 in the morning.''

On the phone Lucas-Smith asked Graham: ''OK, so, ah, what are they going to be able to do anything tonight, do you think?''

Graham: ''Um, I would be very doubtful they could.''

After asking Graham to organise crews for the following day, Lucas-Smith then said: ''Need to make sure we are, that we don't commit ourselves beyond what we might end up needing to commit to the McIntyres Hut fire.''

From Queanbeyan, Arthur also spoke to Graham, saying: ''So I don't, you guys don't envisage doing much tonight, I guess?''

Graham replied: ''I don't think so, no.''

Arthur: ''Hopefully - I mean, until we know what this thing is doing, you can't put people in that country today.''

At 8pm, Arman called the control room, saying the fire was drawing into itself, not moving very fast, and accessible from the eastern side with water tankers and light units.

They would need rake hoe lines around the top section and water bombing on the top section.

On whether to keep crews there or leave, she later felt the decision was hers, although this was a grey area, so she called the communications centre to check if they were happy with what her fire crews were doing.

She called again: ''Could you ask the duty co-ordinator what he'd like us to do, given that it's going to be dark soon, not really sure whether we should be sending a rake hoe team in.''

She was told teams were likely to leave, but that had to be confirmed. At 9pm, professional photographer Jeff Cutting's photograph pictured a low-burning fire, with some flames wrapped around skinny 10-metre trees, a couple fully alight and falling to the ground. Smoke had changed the background to the colour of an old bruise.

In the end, the crews did pack up and leave. Arman would have stayed if instructed, and her superiors were later criticised because leaving was seen as a serious miscalculation.

ACT Coroner Maria Doogan said had crews stayed, the Bendora fire would have been contained.

That night, fire officer Ric Hayes was put on notice to begin as fire officer from 6am the following day. Details of the fire, its location and his teams' objectives were sketchy.

When he arrived before 7am trees were coming down regularly. His aim was to stop the fire from crossing Wombat Road. As the hours passed he became surprised at how a quiet day turned amazingly intense.

He could not have a long radio conversation - radio traffic was too hectic. He repeatedly had to drive kilometres to use his mobile phone. Maps were out of date. Trails were overgrown and crews ordered by Arman did not show up. He and his crew did not even have maps.

From a helicopter overhead, the emergency services' Rick McRae, an ecologist and former crew leader of remote area firefighters, called Hayes to get crews out of the southern side, where the fire was racing with the wind behind it, and to try attacking the blaze along the northern side. Later, he discovered the fire had jumped Wombat Road and two hectares had burnt.

''I could see they were fighting a losing battle, as with the number of people available it was impossible to undertake the attack required to suppress the fire at that time.''

In evidence later, Hayes said: ''I had numerous conversations with Mr Graham, and considering the different circumstances, it was a red day in town. There were numerous other fires burning. We were still concerned about further lightning strikes coming up. I knew the cupboard was bare. If I asked, I wouldn't have got.''

It was not a red day, but the lesser orange alert. Still, Hayes, who had been a Temora brigade member and had experience in firefighting as a sector leader, said there was not much difference.

About 9am on the same day, Tony Bartlett, a veteran of the Ash Wednesday fires in 1983 and with 25 years' experience in forest management and fires, was surprised when told the forest crews should remain on standby rather than be deployed. Later in the afternoon, he was asked to supply a bulldozer for the Bendora blaze.

Veteran firefighter Val Jeffery's offers on January 8 and 9 of a tanker, light unit and rake-and-hoe teams lapsed until days later.

Overnight, the main McIntyres Hut fire had burnt quietly. Spot fires spread and linked, some heading north up ridges, unchecked on their edges. Aerial surveys helped to plot a fire perimeter and bulldozers were deployed to clear and improve fire trails.

Controllers established firebreaks, planning to complete them the next day and burn back from them. The strategy was made without considering time frames, the consequences of failing and the degree of risk, subsequent inquiries found.

High to extreme fire danger continued on January 10, helping the blaze to spread, while spot fires in Mountain Creek continued racing up slopes and linking with one another. On steep and narrow trails piled with loose rocks, fallen trees and mounds to avoid wash-outs in wet weather, bulldozers continued clearing the containment lines, working to a difficult deadline.

Rural Fire Service commissioner Phil Koperberg said later: ''It is always a concern in my mind, and the practitioners' mind, that the work may not be able to be completed, or if it is, will not have sufficient depth to withstand the impact of the oncoming fire.''

The next day, January 11, backburning started along the Transgrid powerline trail from Two Sticks Road and at the junction of Webbs Ridge and the powerline trail.

Stronger winds pushed the Bendora fire's spread. About 5pm, a bulldozer began working on Bendora Hill, and another bulldozer was brought in, but so overgrown was the trail the driver became disoriented and went down another unnamed spur.

Backburning at the McIntyres Hut fire stopped overnight and resumed the next day. A bulldozer line had contained the spot fires, but this work slowed attempts to burn fuel between the control line and the fire.

By January 13, the ACT's Mike Castle, an economist and a lieutenant-colonel in the army, conceded that the Territory's emergency services, which he had run for nine years, did not have the resources to cope, and federal agencies were called in to help.

Two Sea King helicopters and two Squirrel helicopters from Nowra joined the fray. NSW, fighting about 140 fires, and Victoria battling 80 fires, could not provide more help, despite the rising crisis in the ACT.

Later that day, Cheney contacted Lucas-Smith to alert him to a television interview he was about to give. ''I would have to tell them (the media) that in my opinion it was a very dangerous situation and these fires were likely to burn into Canberra,'' he said.

On January 15, Koperberg, worried after receiving the weather forecast for January 18, said on radio: ''This is probably the worst threat to this part of the state in many, many decades.

''The Brindabella complex of fires is certainly a potential threat to some very valuable assets, not the least being some mature pine forest on the border of Canberra, and indeed the ACT itself.

''Given the fact the weather is going to deteriorate at the weekend and possibly quite severely, the job is still ahead of them.''

The main McIntyres Hut fire advanced in low humidity more than two kilometres and broke a perimeter line east of the Baldy Range fire trail.

In extreme heat, tired firefighters staved off defeat, burning out areas of fuel. But it was slow going, and their efforts were enlarging the fire which kept growing and growing, by catching the wind and throwing spot fires into the dry grasslands.

By 7pm on January 17, the fire charged forward.

Three hours earlier, the drought-weakened Goodradigbee River proved a poor containment line. Blackberry bushes and overhanging trees had helped the fire's crossing at Tommys Flat near McIntyres Hut.

Heading west and south with devastating consequences for Wayne West's Wyora Station at Sandy Flat, the flames then turned east, heading towards Canberra.

The day before, West's neighbour Katja Mikhailovich saw the fire on the river's eastern edge burning into blackberry bushes and flaring into the canopy of trees, and with the help of farm workers, she controlled that outbreak. No fire crews were about.

Helicopters aerial bucketing the flames had little impact. Ping pong-sized balls known as aerial incendiaries, which should have been used earlier to fight fire with fire, were dropped near the inferno, but it was too late.

Authorities acknowledged this was risky. Cheney said dropping the incendiaries on a day of increasing hazard was poor practice and doomed to failure with spot fires of several kilometres likely to occur.

He and another expert, Trevor Roche, acknowledged the fire was likely to break containment lines in the hot weather in any case, but said the aerial incendiaries meant that likelihood had become virtually a certainty.

About 1pm on Saturday, January 18, crews were overwhelmed as the fire roared through Uriarra, and an hour later it burnt into Mount McDonald's pine plantations north of the Cotter Dam. Forty-five minutes later, flames raged up the western slopes of Mount Stromlo, clearly visible from Canberra.

From the north, the McIntyres Hut fire met the Bendora fire to the south, generating an inferno in Pierces Creek and cutting a swath through the pine plantations.

The tongue of fire that escaped from the McIntyres Hut blaze to the south came in between the Bendora fire.

Cheney, who had burnt the mountains decades ago to avoid fires coming into the national capital, even though thick smoke would close down the airport, said later that 3 million hectares had burnt out across Victoria, NSW and the ACT in that terrible, tragic January of 2003.