Bushfire burns near Canberra, storm batters suburbs on wild day
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Bushfire burns near Canberra, storm batters suburbs on wild day

Canberrans already fearful of a looming bushfire to the city's west were hit by a short and savage storm on Friday afternoon which whipped up extreme winds and rain, but brought little relief to firefighters.

On Friday night the bushfire covered 147 hectares and was burning out of control seven kilometres away from Canberra's south-west fringe, but posed no threat to property or life.

The bushfire at Pierces Creek was out of control for most of Friday.

The bushfire at Pierces Creek was out of control for most of Friday.Credit:Jamila Toderas

Emergency Services Commissioner Dominic Lane was able to downgrade the alert level from "Watch and Act" to "Advice" on Friday evening.

Firefighters were watching conditions closely on Friday night, hoping an opportunity would open to start backburning and bring the fire under control. Ten crews remained at the scene as bulldozers helped build containment lines.

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While firefighters, the State Emergency Service and members of NSW's Rural Fire Service fought the blaze on Friday afternoon, they were also faced with a severe storm, which brought winds of up to 90km/h, but little rain.

The SES responded to more than 100 calls for help, including reports of fallen trees and power outages. The winds also damaged the roof of a hangar at Fairbairn, next to Canberra airport.

The storm brought a drop in temperature of 10 degrees within 30 minutes, and one to two millimetres of rain, which "gave us a little bit of respite", Mr Lane told ABC Canberra.

"We've had a good afternoon as it turns out, it could have been a lot worse," he said.

Despite the storm bringing rain to the fire-affected area, Mr Lane said he expected the fire to grow overnight before it was able to be contained.

"We'll work hard over the next 12 hours to see how far we can get in containing this fire. We're not confident to get all the way around it tonight, so there will be more work to be done tomorrow, but I know our crews that will be out there will be ready to get out there this evening," Mr Lane said.

The forecast for the weekend was milder than the past two days, giving firefighters confidence the easing conditions would help their efforts.

The Bureau of Meteorology is expecting average wind speeds of up to 30km/h until Tuesday, a slight reprieve from the 40km/h averages and 90km/h gusts buffeting firefighters at the end of this week.

Despite their confidence, the fire danger rating is expected to remain at very high on Saturday, but a total fire ban is not expected to be declared.

Mr Lane said the agency had 35 tankers on site, out of a total of 40 units fighting the fire, and bulldozers and graders had been used to put in containment lines. Five helicopters were used on spot fires and two large air tankers were brought in from Sydney.

Earlier in the day, emergency services doorknocked between 400 and 700 residents in the suburbs of Kambah, Greenway, Bonython and Gordon as a precautionary measure to make sure people were enacting their bushfire plans.

Throughout the day, emergency services encouraged people living in bushfire-prone areas of Canberra to make sure they had a bushfire plan in place and were prepared to enact it if necessary.

Early in the day 150 students were evacuated from the Birrigai Outdoor School and taken to Miles Franklin School.

The Galilee School was evacuated around 11am, but all other schools remained open as normal.

While there was no order to evacuate horses, many Canberrans acted early, taking their animals to Exhibition Park in Canberra and Rivett Neighbourhood Oval.

Residents hosed their roofs and cleared their gutters, as well as keeping wet towels in baths and packing their cars in preparation.

Many Canberrans who were preparing their homes on Friday said memories of the 2003 fires were fresh in their minds.

"It's very much on our mind at the moment," said Aaron Hale, the operations manager of Eternity Church in Kambah. The church's original building in Holder was destroyed in 2003.

The fire began on Thursday night, when a car caught fire on Laurel Camp Road at Pierces Creek. It grew to 113 hectares overnight, with more than 25 appliances battling the blaze through the night. Mr Lane said the cause of the fire was a matter for police.

Speaking to reporters, Mr Lane said that, due to the extremely dry conditions, the firefighters were facing conditions similar to the 2003 firestorm when four people died and close to 500 homes were destroyed. He feared people had become complacent in the nearly 16 years since the firestorm, but now was the time to act.

"This is a strong reminder to our community, to the ACT citizens – now’s the time to get ready," he said.

"Download your bushfire survival plan from the ESA website, take notice of the information, keep up-to-date with the ESA website in terms of warnings and alerts and download the Fires Near Me app.

"If this is a taste of what we’re dealing with it’s going to be a very long summer for our firefighters."

Sally Whyte is a reporter for The Canberra Times covering the public service.

Sherryn Groch is a reporter for The Canberra Times, with a special interest in education and social affairs

Finbar O'Mallon is a reporter for The Canberra Times

Megan Doherty is a reporter for The Canberra Times