The road to devastation
Volunteers try to save a house in Serpentine Street, Duffy, on January 18, 2003. Photo: Richard Briggs
J anuary 18, 2003, started off for me as just a normal day. I went to the ANU in the morning to finish a paper for a conference, and left there about 2pm. On the way home, I noticed how dark the sky had become to the southern and western sides of Canberra.
When I got home I suggested to my wife Ruth that we drive up Red Hill to see where the smoke was coming from and take some pictures. When we got up there we could see thick smoke approaching from two directions. The sky had darkened, like it does just before heavy rain. There were lots of spectators taking photographs. A fire officer soon came and sealed off the main car park.
We then drove to Black Mountain to have a look from there, but found it closed off and decided to have coffee at the nearby Botanical Gardens. That too was closed. After that, we headed home, listening to the car radio. It was all about the increasing gravity of the situation. Chief Minister Jon Stanhope had just declared a state of emergency, which apparently put the Chief Police Officer, John Murray, in charge of the situation.
The destroyed house of Clive Williams's father in Allchin Circuit, Kambah, a day after the firestorm. Photo: Clive Williams
Callers were providing up-to-the-minute news of what was burning in their areas, or were inquiring about where the fire was because of concerns about relatives and family. The initial advice was for people in threatened suburbs to return home, take basic fireproofing precautions, and then stay indoors.
One caller wanted to pray on air for Canberra and was reluctantly allowed to do so. Most listeners were more interested in knowing what the fires were doing.
When we got home just after 3pm, Ruth rang our close friends Mike and Aileen at Bolden Place in Kambah. Their house has bush reserve on two sides. Ruth asked whether they were all right. Aileen answered hurriedly: "The fire is approaching on two fronts" and promptly put the phone down. We decided to head to their house to see if we could help.
Clearly the police and emergency services had been overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, as there were no road closures on our route through Woden into Kambah. We later learned that they were all involved in evacuating people and fighting fires in other areas. We headed through the thickening smoke to Woden and then on to the Tuggeranong Parkway. The few cars we saw were headed with their headlights on in the opposite direction.
A s we crested the hill towards Kambah it became like night. We were soon engulfed in thick smoke with strong side winds, burning cinders gusting past the car and trees burning along the sides of the parkway as the fire seemed to pass over us. Visibility dropped to less than 50 metres.
We turned left into Sulwood Drive, but missed the first Colquhoun Street turn-off in the thick smoke. We soon came to the second Colquhoun Street access, it being a loop road. We found ourselves driving through an inferno in the darkness (this was mid-afternoon) with trees burning very close to both sides of the single-lane, each-way road, along with occasional houses. Visibility was down to about 20-50 metres. My main concern was that the tyres would catch fire leaving us stranded. Thinking about it later, having a white car might well have saved us.
We reached our friends' house to find the fire burning at the front and side as well as a front tyre of their car. Some windows had gone, and the fence was well alight and fire threatening to spread to the wooden deck along the back of the house. The heat was intense. The house was in darkness because the power was off.
There were five of us trying to save the house as their adult son John was also there. The main problems were the strong, hot winds, the intense heat, the thick smoke, and the volume of swirling embers, particularly red-hot tanbark, being carried along by the strong wind, as well as the danger of flying branches and debris. The embers caused continual spot fires, including inside the house, and these were difficult to put out because of the lack of water. The water pressure was very low because of burst pipes in burning houses in the same area. A bucket took about a minute to fill.
About every 30 seconds or so there would be an explosion in the suburb as car petrol tanks, gas cylinders or tyres exploded. After nearly two hours we were all reasonably confident that the fire around the house was dying down. The only serious nearby loss was the next-door neighbour's garage and a house down the street. In that part of Kambah probably one in four houses was lost. Our friends lost their fence, some windows, some carpet, had smoke and scorch damage, and lost their garden, but fortunately that was it.
We headed off to check on my father's house at 96 Allchin Circuit, Kambah, which had been recently rented out when he moved into a retirement home. Again we had not realised that the area had been evacuated. We found the house destroyed. There was no sign of the tenant's car, and we later learned he had departed safely with his dog. The two adjoining houses were on fire as were many others in the street that backs on to bushland. While we were there, a young woman who had recently bought and redecorated an adjoining house returned to find it well alight and became hysterical. There were no firefighters in that area. There was one fire crew about 600 metres away, fighting a fire, but they were fully committed.
A person from a street further back told us that dad's wooden house had been one of the first to go. We were told the fire had approached with a great roar over the crest of the hill and a firestorm had swept like an express train through Allchin Circuit, burning everything in its path. Dad's house had just exploded. The heat must have been intense because we later found it had melted metal and glass. As there was no one left to put out spot fires, the loss of houses deeper into the suburb was much greater than it might otherwise have been.
Under the emergency powers police were empowered to move people out or arrest them if they refused to move. Obviously their first priority was safeguarding life, rather than property.
F rom Allchin Circuit we went to Duffy to see if we could help a couple of friends there. Duffy seemed to have borne the initial brunt of the firefront. It had reached the area arcing through the pine forest that adjoins it. Again we found lots of smoke and houses burning, but few people there because most had been evacuated, and just the occasional fire crew. At Duffy oval there were many horses that had been evacuated from agistment paddocks.
John had told us earlier that while he was driving to Bolden Place, a motorist in front of him had hit two fleeing kangaroos. There were many damaged and abandoned cars along the roads as people had panicked as they evacuated, or had had collisions in the heavy smoke. The traffic lights were off at all intersections due to the power outage.
We had to retrace our steps a couple of times while approaching our friend Lana's house in Cordeaux Street, Duffy, due to burning power poles that had fallen across the road. We managed to reach her house to find it well watered but nobody there. It later transpired that she and her daughter were at our house having been compulsorily evacuated. There was nothing we could do there. Two houses were burning at the end of the street, but there seemed to be no immediate danger to her house. A few residents had trickled back or stayed, and were co-operating to put out spot fires.
We next went to check on our friend Geoff's house in nearby Eucumbene Drive. Geoff lives part of the year in Bali. We could not drive all the way there because of fire hoses across the road as a fire crew was battling a house fire, and there was a fallen tree across the road. We walked up the side of Renmark Street that was burning least. Helicopters, including a firefighting helicopter, were picking up water, presumably from swimming pools, and dropping it about 200 metres away. It was a surreal scene with the smoke, the noise, and the helicopters disappearing and reappearing through the smoke. At this stage, the main firefront had probably passed through some time before, but there were lots of spot fires, with fire from burning houses and vegetation setting off new fires in the eaves of previously unaffected houses.
There was a soot-covered couple sitting by the side of the road who had managed to save their house. They offered us a cold VB, which we gratefully accepted.
We managed to get through to Geoff's recently refurbished house to find it burned to ground level, with his car destroyed in the carport. Next door to Geoff's house there were three people in their 20s, who had managed to save the Walewiczes house. The house apparently belonged to one of the girl's parents. They had made their way back in after the evacuation. One of the girls turned to us and said sincerely, thinking we were the next-door neighbours, "We are so sorry we could not save your house."
From there we returned to the car and intended to drive towards home in South Canberra through Duffy. There were lots of burned and burning houses along the way, including the Duffy Petrol Station that had caught fire, apparently taking nearby houses with it. We passed a school that was on fire and then the Holder Animal Hospital from which smoke was still coming. We stopped off to see if there was anything we could do for any animals there. We found the buildings already burnt through. The large dog kennels were empty, but there were smaller animals in cages that had been burned to death. While we were there, a distraught man who had left his two Jack Russell terriers for treatment came in, but there was no sign of them.
G oing along the Cotter Road our car and a police car 100 metres ahead were the only cars on the road. There was thick smoke from fire that had passed through and was threatening the police facility at Weston. At that time, my wife worked part-time at the RSPCA so as we were passing the side road that leads to the RSPCA, she thought we should check and see if we could help the staff. I turned down the access road but could go no further than about 100 metres because power poles were burning and wires were lying across the road. The fire had probably passed through about 15 minutes earlier, leaving the surrounding pine forest, houses and the sides of the road burning, and a pick-up truck on fire. The area was deserted.
I parked on the road and we made our way through thick smoke to the RSPCA compound, carefully avoiding the downed power lines, and found the reception building well alight. The whole area was thick with black smoke from burning buildings. But because of the swirling wind, we were able to make our way through to the area behind the reception building where most of the animals are kept. There was complete silence apart from the sounds of the fire. To our surprise there was nobody in the whole area so we pulled out the hoses to try to put out the fires. Fortunately they were larger than garden hoses and there was still good water pressure.
We found that the dogs in the outer kennels had been evacuated (we learned later they had gone to the zoo), but the remainder were still there. All of the dogs had material hanging at the front of their kennels to protect them from the radiant heat, which we regularly re-wetted. The cockatoos' aviary was on fire so we put that out. The cockies were hiding in the top corner of the aviary along with a large rat. The main dog kennels were not in great danger from catching fire because they had no wood content; the main hazards to the dogs were the heat and the acrid smoke. As far as I know all of the dogs survived.
We managed to put out fires at the cattery (all the cats seemed to be still there), a storage shed, the contagious diseases kennels, a house used by the RSPCA, as well as the most threatening grass fires. No sooner would you put one fire out than another would start. It seemed to be a case of spontaneous combustion. I let the only dog in the contagious diseases kennels out because the roof beams were on fire. It departed rapidly!
Some of the free-range animals were looking a bit shell-shocked. One chicken did not move but was alive and uninjured. Another was completely roasted. A bemused goat followed me around. Two pigeons were sitting on the side of a box as if awaiting evacuation. When I went near them I found they had both stayed because one could not fly.
Again there was the roar of helicopters passing overhead through the heavy smoke as they flew from a water catchment to the firefront near the police facility. We could see a wall of flames about 500 metres from us.
We stayed at the RSPCA for about two hours putting out fires, some of which kept regenerating, until the manager, Simon, arrived. He told us that all the staff and local residents had been made to evacuate just before we arrived, but there had been lots of firies there at the time who had intended to protect the remaining animals. Presumably they had been called away to another area.
The RSPCA reception building could have been saved if there had been even limited resources there 10 minutes or so before we arrived. It was simply not possible to save it using the RSPCA's hoses. I heard later that some animals in the reception building were killed by the fire.
We finally reached home about 8.30pm, sooty and red-eyed, with a few burns to the car's paintwork, to find our Duffy friends there. I sent off an email to Geoff in Bali to give him the sad news about his renovated house. It just shows you how days you expect to be routine can turn out to be anything but. We later learned that more than 500 homes had been lost as well, sadly, as four human lives and a great many wild and domestic animals.
Clive Williams is an adjunct professor at Macquarie University's centre for policing, intelligence and counterterrorism, and a visiting professor at the Australian National University's Australian centre for military and security law.