ACT News


Remembering the day it rained embers and burnt leaves

Why fire-prone Canberra should never become complacent

On January 18, 2003, the Orana Steiner School's woodwork teacher, Chris Matthews, had an urge to go and see if his workplace was affected by the bushfires licking the edges of suburban Canberra.

"It was pretty chaotic," Mr Matthews said, almost exactly 13 years later, surveying the Weston site that was ablaze as he arrived there.

"When I turned up, it was madness: all the trees were burning, everything was alight."

He grabbed the irreplaceable tools of his trade he had collected over time and started extinguishing the flames closest to the buildings.

"I was trying to find a hose that would reach them," he said, describing how plastic items were melting around the grounds.


"I had the hose going in and out the windows, through the classrooms, and I was stretching as much as I could."

The roads to the school were blocked but Mr Matthews' wife, Liana, managed to get there and she retrieved the student files.

"It was happening so quickly and we were running from place to place," Mr Matthews said.

"It was raining embers and burnt leaves."

He remembered the spectacle as the fire hit the gas mains and shot "about 20 metres, up in the air".

Several people had joined them and a parent was trying to put out a fire in one of the classrooms when a fire engine arrived.

"When I turned up, it was madness: all the trees were burning, everything was alight."

Chris Matthews

Mr Matthews said the firefighters turned the fire hose on him and told him to get away.

Soon after, a helicopter flew overhead to water bomb the area, saving a whole section of classrooms in the middle campus.

"The next day I was really wiped," Mr Matthews said.

"I didn't bring any water or anything like that."

He said he was also "inappropriately dressed" and the rubber soles of his shoes began to smell as he moved through the burning soft fall.

Olga Blasch, the primary school's assistant principal, said the kindergarten was "the biggest loss" and the younger children had worried about their teacher's welfare, imagining she "lived" there.

Ms Blasch recalled how the debris and logs smouldered and burnt "for days" and people brought their own hoses to douse the premises.

She was heartened by "the love that came and the overwhelming support" shown to the Orana community, including a teacher and 20 families who lost their homes in the firestorm.

Mr Matthews received an "award of valour" for his efforts.