A decade on, the reality is sobering
On Friday, this newspaper published a special presentation, Faces of the Fire, on its website, canberratimes.com.au. It features 40 personal stories of courage, loss, resilience and rebuilding from the January 18, 2003, firestorm that took four lives and destroyed almost 500 homes.
Canberra is preparing to mark the 10th anniversary of that dark day. And, eerily, the bush capital is beset once more by an extreme heatwave and fires being battled on our doorstep.
To an extent, time has faded the memories of that horror day a decade ago. We have since also witnessed tragedies on a far greater scale. Four years ago, the terrifying Black Saturday fires tore through Victoria, killing 173 people - more than any other bushfire in Australia's modern history. Almost two years after that catastrophe, freakishly heavy rains flooded much of Queensland; they affected hundreds of thousands of people and led to the loss of 36 lives.
Yet for Canberra, a comparatively small community then and now, the 2003 firestorm remains a defining moment. Not only the disaster itself, but how we responded to it and how it still affects us. Before it struck us, outsiders often derided our city as lacking a soul; Canberra was the butt of a national joke.
Yet the rest of the nation turned to us and cared for us - accepted us, even showed us love - when we needed it. And, in the days and weeks that followed, we cared for each other. We housed our neighbours; we helped to clear and repair the damaged properties of strangers; employers told staff not to come to work but to tend to what mattered. The suffering we endured proved, to ourselves as much as others, that we were a strong community.
Nonetheless, most of our memories of the 2003 firestorm are personal stories. Some are heart-warming, but others are difficult to hear. One of the Faces of the Fire, former Tidbinbilla resident Janet Flint, tells how her tiny rural community of Pierces Creek was wiped out. Even a decade on, it's impossible not to be moved by her raw pain. ''The killing was the most awful thing. The kids would go every day and kill sheep, kill kangaroos, possums; it was just sickening … They did things no 10-year-old should ever have to do,'' she says.
A Parks and Conservation Services officer, Brett McNamara, recalls the inferno racing towards him. ''It got to the point where we were just fending for our own lives. I was knocked over and was being pelted with embers the size of your fist or your arm.
''We had a small spa near the house and I dived into that as the flames engulfed me. I remember just looking up and seeing flames everywhere, lying in this water honestly thinking I was going to die.''
For many who lost homes, the disaster steeled their resolve to rebuild their lives - and to grow. As Jane Smyth, whose house in Chapman was destroyed, reflects: ''You learn you can live with less, a lot less, and what really matters is people, not things.''
Duffy home owner Alan Evans says: ''There was an absolute determination to come back. I think it showed the determination of our family that we could make those decisions together.''
For others, the distress gave way to anger; frustration that the ACT government was unprepared, and, in their view, remains unready today.
Chapman resident Ron Forrester, who lost his house, stood as a candidate in the ACT election the year after the firestorm ''because I was so angry with how we'd been dealt with. The disappointment for me in 2003 was the lack of warning we got from the government.''
The blaze also destroyed Chandani Prammer's Duffy home. She looks back on that day with regret. ''I still feel now, 10 years later, that I should have had the opportunity to know that the fire was coming. I didn't have a say in wanting to save my house, or abandon it. That was not my choice. The authorities took that upon themselves and I still today feel very uncomfortable about it.''
ACT Emergency Services Minister Simon Corbell says Canberra has learnt from the events of 2003: ''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.''
Unfortunately, Mr Corbell's assertions are likely to be tested in our lifetime. We live on a planet that is warming at a dangerously fast rate; a fate humankind has brought on itself. And with the greater extremes in temperature that this brings will come more ferocious firestorms, more regularly than they once did. We thank the 40 people who have shared their experiences in Faces of the Fire. We encourage you all to hear these stories of 2003, and to heed their painful lessons.