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Pride rises from the ashes

Today's 10th anniversary of the 2003 bushfire disaster has stirred the memories of many Canberrans, writes Megan Doherty

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The passage of time since the January 18 firestorm in 2003 is embodied in 10-year-old Roy Arnould.

He was born on the day of the firestorm, his mother Takako’s contractions starting as his father Lee was frantically plugging downpipes and filling gutters on the roof of their Duffy home as the firestorm bore down on Canberra.

Mr Arnould did arrive at the hospital in time to see his son born that evening. Roy is now a sweet little boy who loves video games and his puppy and who wants to one day be a geologist.

Even two years ago, Mr Arnould was still seething about the lack of warnings for the fire. Ten years after the firestorm, he is hopeful things have improved.


‘‘I think the lessons have been learnt. In the last few weeks we’ve had had plenty of notice [of the fire threat],’’ he said.

There is still anger, however, a decade after the fire. Gail and Laurence Buchanan, who lost their home in Duffy, believe former chief minister Jon Stanhope should have resigned because he was acting emergency services minister on the day and ultimately responsible for the failure in warnings.

‘‘I cannot forgive the amount of terror that was given to the people of Canberra,’’ Mrs Buchanan said.

‘‘I’ve said right from the beginning, tens of thousands of people in Canberra were affected that day. It wasn’t just the 500 homes lost. It was every person who had a house up on a ridge in Canberra and watched the fire coming. I’ve got friends whose sons were in Isaacs and they were 11 and 13 and were hysterical because they could see the fires going over Kambah and thought their parents were caught in it. People were affected by the trauma of it all. And it’s still there in a lot of people.’’

The Buchanans had more than their share of terror on the day. Mrs Buchanan went to try to rescue her elderly mother from her home in Duffy. Mr Buchanan went with their son Sam in another car but crashed into a tree as a Saturday afternoon in high summer turned pitch-black by the fire. Mr Buchanan managed to turn the car around and point it towards an exit road. He then went on foot to help his wife.

‘‘It was only a year later I found out that he left Sam with the car, he was just 15 at the time, and Laurie told Sam, ‘If we don’t come back, get the hell out of here’. I’m thinking, ‘No 15-year-old should ever be told something like that’. When I heard it, that took me totally undone and that was like a year later,’’ Mrs Buchanan said.

Her mother was saved but her mother’s house was also destroyed.

The family later experienced the low of Sam breaking his neck at a BMX championships three months later. And they have had the high, too, of their daughter Caroline representing Australia in the BMX event at the London Olympics last year. Sam also went on to make a full recovery.

‘‘Sport was the only thing that made us feel normal,’’ Mr Buchanan said.


There is sadness, too, on the anniversary. Alex Evans was 21 and her sister Ariane, 14, at the time of the fire. She remembers leaving their Eucumbene Drive home in Duffy and being surprised by the darkness and how alone they were. The house was lost in the firestorm.

Now 31 and living with her parents Alan and Anne back in the rebuilt home, Alex says the whole experience ‘‘feels like a movie’’.

‘‘It made you realise you can lose everything in an instant so appreciate what you have now. And hold on to memories,’’ she said.

Ms Evans was contemplating attending the official commemoration of the firestorm today. ‘‘But the closer and closer it gets, I’m really reluctant to. It makes me a little teary. I don’t cry often and I think going there is just going to make me sad, especially because of the people who died. That really upsets me,’’ she said.

The firestorm also provoked some reassessment of lives.

Volunteer firefighter Nicole King survived two burnovers while battling the blaze on January 18 on the property Winslade near Mount Stromlo. The first one, she was inside the truck; the second she was stuck outside, hunkering behind a wheel with her hose spurting water in the air as the flames went over.

‘‘Just before, when we’d been standing with the hoses waiting for the fires to come over the hill, it felt like one of those World War One  soldiers with the bayonets waiting for someone to come at you. It was a pretty horrible feeling,’’ she said.

Within a year, her marriage had broken down. She says the fire did contribute.

‘‘I think it made me stop and evaluate it. I’m not sure things were great before that and it made me stop and think that, actually, life is too short. If you’re not happy, do something about it,’’ she said.

Ms King, 40, is now remarried to another firefighter from the Rivers brigade, David Robinson. They have a two-year-old son Kai. Ms King has two children from her first marriage. James was only six and Laura five at the time of the firestorm. She took them to training exercises after the firestorm to assure them she knew what she was doing and that she would be safe.

‘‘It was hard for them and hard to know what I was going through,’’ she said.

‘‘The whole process afterwards was quite a few nights out. Down the pub with everyone else who’d been through the fires, just rehashing what you’d been through, going over and over it. I think I heard everyone’s story a dozen times but that was the way we dealt with it. It seemed to work.’’

Ms King, a photographer, still volunteers for the brigade and has few negative thoughts about the firestorm.

‘‘I’m fine. I’m actually okay. It was a major experience and in some ways life-changing,’’ she said. ‘‘But it was something I trained for and I did it.’’


There is also acceptance 10 years after the fires. Eric Hayes, 87, lived at the Pierces Creek forestry settlement for 43 years before his home was destroyed in the fires.

The settlement was virtually wiped out. Twelve of the 13 homes were destroyed in the rural settlement about 12km west of Duffy. The homes, originally built for forestry workers and still occupied mostly by their families despite being managed by Housing ACT, were not rebuilt due to a stoush between the ACT Government and the National Capital Authority about how big a new settlement should be.

Mr Hayes, whose job as a forestry  worker included putting out fires in the surrounding bush, now lives a simple, contented life on a property between Canberra and Queanbeyan. He could never contemplate a home in the suburbs.

Mr Hayes stayed to face the fury of the firestorm after allowing his ute to be taken to evacuate two other injured Pierces Creek residents. He accepted long ago that the settlement was gone but had some misgivings about the firefight.

‘‘We were always going to them, bushfires from lightning strikes,’’ he said. ‘‘We used to go out straight away to the lightning strikes and put them out if we could. It might be the middle of the night but we still went. And that, I think, was missing.’’

There is also gratitude on the anniversary. Denise and Barry McGloin rebuilt their home in Calder Place, Holder, escaping on the day just as the house went up.

“We’ve always had a very positive attitude,’’ she said. ‘‘We’ve had some other things happen in our lives, so this to me wasn’t the end of the world. The reason we were so positive, I think, was just the overwhelming kindness of people. I can remember just about everything that anyone did for me.

‘‘We’ve got quilts that people gave us. A lady rang us out of the blue and said she had all this kitchen equipment which was all brand new. There were little simple things like going into David Jones the day or so after the fire where I still hadn’t had anything and they gave me all these free samples for moisturisers, little things like that.

‘‘I was quite positive about the ACT Government as well. The centre they set up there was fabulous. Every time we went in there, someone had donated something. A bike for our son. A vacuum cleaner, you name it. It was just unbelievable.’’

The retired public servants had paid off their other house and had to take out a mortgage for the rebuilt house. They justified it by thinking the old house would probably have needed renovations anyway.

‘‘I have vague memories of the old house, but not strong memories. Now, this is home,’’ Mrs McGloin, 60, said. ‘‘It took me a while to feel like that. I think that was because we were really exposed and didn’t have a garden or anything like that. But now everything’s grown and we’ve had lots of Christmases here. I think the kids regard this as home.’’

Mrs McGloin says she did have a stiff gin and tonic with a neighbour last week during the horrific weather conditions. But she is at peace with the firestorm.

“I think it puts it all in perspective -  what is important is your family and your health and everything else is just stuff that can be replaced. I figure if we were in Bangladesh or somewhere like that we wouldn’t have had the support or the insurance and those sort of things. We’re not that badly off,’’ she said.


Linda Thurbon and her husband Les moved back into their rebuilt Duffy home within seven months of the firestorm.

‘‘When hubby was driving things, it was a case of, ‘Get off your bum or move out of the way’. In hindsight, I’m glad it happened that way. He was gone within five years,’’ she said.

Mr Thurbon, a former ACTION driver, passed away in 2008. That has been tough for Mrs Thurbon. She also remembers being emotionally fragile in the days after the fire.

‘‘I went to the bank and the teller said, ‘Can I help you?’ and I just dissolved into tears. She said, ‘Come with me’ and took me out into a private room. She said they’d set it up for people like me who dissolved into tears for whatever reason,’’ she said.

‘‘People helped us who we never knew. One lady gave me the cuttings out of her garden. You just don’t know who’s going to reach out to you.’’

There is still some lingering fear on the anniversary of the fires.

Back in 2003, Hazel Bennett was just four-years-old. Her innocent question to her mother Meg Doepel - ‘‘How did the fires know we lived here?’’ - became the title of a book of bushfire stories published by Ginninderra Press.

Hazel, now 14, was evacuated on the day of the firestorm with her grandparents from their home in Darwinia Terrace in Rivett. Her mother and father, Ross Bennett, stayed to fight the fires at their urban-fringe property Arawang Homestead on the southern edge of Cooleman Ridge.

Ms Doepel, then a ranger, had already been fighting the fires for two weeks. When the surrounding paddocks started to ignite, she directed her other daughter, Becky and Becky’s young friend, Ella, to take two horses each and ‘‘run deep into the suburbs’’. (They made it to Kambah oval.)

Then the electricity failed; the water stopped. Ms Doepel eventually left to find her children while Mr Bennett chose to stay and fight. She later returned to the property, expecting to find the body of her husband. Police had found Mr Bennett unconscious in the driveway. It was only after three visits to the Canberra Hospital that Ms Doepel eventually found him.

‘‘I was sitting in the waiting room and finally this nurse came out and said,  ‘We have someone and we don’t know who he is. Come and see if it’s him’. And, sure enough, it was him. He was unconscious and had tubes and stuff coming out of his nose and mouth. And that was just gut-wrenching,’’ she said.

Their house miraculously survived the fires. Young Hazel was still terrified by the burnt ground and refused to look out the window.

Mr Bennett and Ms Doepel are now separated. She  lives on a bush property off the Captains Flat Road with Hazel, who felt that same terror during the terrible weather conditions 10 days ago.

‘‘I don’t want to lose a house,’’ Hazel said. ‘‘I just didn’t want the risk of it. And because we’re so isolated, no one will find us out here.’’

The Year Nine student is usually more concerned with horse riding and playing with her dogs. The firestorm is more often just a memory.

‘‘It’s something I don’t think about too often but when I do, it just makes me sad knowing I could have lost my family and I could have lost my house,’’ she said.


There is also a sense of a legacy on the anniversary. Di Butcher was manager for the ACT Recovery Centre which opened in the old Lyons primary school six days after the firestorm. It was a one-stop shop for advice, support, counselling, donations for bushfire victims. It remained open until March, 2004.

Ms Butcher remembers ‘‘there was a magic’’ about the recovery centre. It was the epicentre of a Canberra’s generosity, whether it was residents of the street nipping over with cakes and slices for the workers or the city responding to each and every call for help.

‘‘I remember saying in the early days that the hall was hot and disgusting with no greenery and then all of a sudden all of these flowers starting arriving from all over Canberra, it kind of looked like a spring garden. In the end we had to say, ‘That’s enough!’,’’ she said.

Ms Butcher and several other staff had worked in child protection before being seconded to the recovery centre but she never went back to her old job. She worked for a while in the Chief Minister’s Department and was later instrumental in lobbying the government to maintain the one-stop shop model for delivering human services in the ACT. Similar child and parent centres have now been set up in Gungahlin, Tuggeranong and Belconnen. Ms Butcher, who manages the Gungahlin centre, was also sent to help the recovery effort at the South Australian fires and Queensland floods. Settling back into the public service after the recovery centre closed was not easy because she was used to working in a system that responded immediately.

‘‘I don’t think were were good public servants when we went back.  I think we were quite hard to manage because we’d seen what government could do, we’d seen what good leadership meant, we’d seen - given the right set of circumstances and the right approach - you could get things done,’’ she said.

‘‘I think our frustration was ‘Let’s go back and work that way’. But I think the system was rolling much slower. We were also very tired. I think someone probably should have said to us, ‘You lot better go away and think about where you’ve been’.’’

Ms Butcher said the firestorm presented a ‘‘profound change professionally’’.

‘‘I really valued what I was presented with and it did make you work harder,’’ she said, adding it forced someone who was ‘‘not an extrovert’’ to deal almost daily with the media.

‘‘Even now I look back now and think,  ‘How bold was I? Like, ‘What was I saying?’. I’m not sure I could do that again. But many people, as the result of that, stretched themselves. And many of the men and women who worked during that time went on to do things they didn’t think they would do.’’

There is also a sense of purpose on the anniversary. ACT Policing Senior Constable Jane MacKenzie was stationed on a roadblock at the corner of Darwinia Terrace and Hindmarsh Drive at the border of Rivett and Duffy as the firestorm approached. It was tough  telling people they couldn’t go back to their homes but she does recall one lighter moment early on.

‘‘I remember there was one guy who came to us and said, ‘My grandparents are in the house’ and I said, ‘Well, get in there, get them out and hurry out’. And he came out with two huskies,’’ she said, with a laugh.

‘‘Then when it got really, really bad we weren’t allowed to let people go back in. And even when the fire had passed, we weren’t allowed to let people into their homes straight away. People were really pissed off and that was really hard.’’

She remembers earlier in the day a light unit coming to the roadblock and telling them the fire was 45 minutes away only to turn the corner, come back and say it was actually five minutes away. Embers rained down on them, singeing her hair and burning holes into her police shirt.

‘‘At one stage when we were going through Darwinia Terrace, there was this big glow towards Canberra and I thought, ‘If we get surrounded by this, we might die’. There was a point when I thought we might not get through it,’’ she said.

Senior Constable MacKenzie, 46, was later seconded to the Solomon Islands. She has worked for the last seven years in the unit investigating vehicle accidents.

‘‘I’m really pleased I was there [at the fires] and I really feel it had a big impact on my life. It does come into my mind a lot. It was a big day and I felt that I helped a bit.’’

Mount Stromlo site officer Graeme Blackman was the last person off Mount Stromlo on the day of the fires. He is still reluctant to talk about it. Some stories need more time.


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