Never forget Canberra's baptism by fire
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Never forget Canberra's baptism by fire

The catastrophic bushfire that swept over large parts of the ACT on January 18, 2003, killing four people and injuring another 435, was a defining and formative moment in the history of this community.

While, on the one hand, it remains an object lesson for the authorities in how not to prepare for a crisis, it was also Canberra's finest hour.

In the days, weeks and months that followed the devastation, which destroyed more than 500 homes and other buildings and left well over 1000 people homeless and in shock, residents rallied to support the victims and help them get their lives back on track as quickly as possible.

The city that had frequently been derided as a soulless dormitory for a transient public service population that had no real sense of community quickly proved its knockers wrong.

Within hours of the apocalyptic scope of the devastation becoming apparent, countless private citizens were rallying around, collecting blankets, clothes and other necessities for those who had lost everything.

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This heartfelt community response went some way to alleviating the losses and pain that had been exacerbated by the failures of leadership shown by the government of the day.

Its own inquiry, headed by former Commonwealth Ombudsman Ron McLeod, was scathing and found the original fires, which had been started by lightning strikes close to the NSW ACT border on January 8, could have been contained if they had been attacked more aggressively at the beginning.

The situation was made worse by a failure by the responsible authorities to reduce the fuel load in the bush on the outskirts of the city and to ensure there was good access into remote areas for firefighters and their equipment.

While the ACT's emergency service organisations had done the best they could with what they had, they had never been trained for a catastrophe on this scale and, in addition, were hampered by a lack of equipment and resources.

And, worst of all, on the day the community was not given timely and accurate information on the scale of the fires, the speed of their spread, the places they were at and whether or not residents should leave their homes.

Today, 15 years on from the events that have been seared into the memories of hundreds of thousands of this city's residents, there is some debate over whether or not all of these criticisms have been adequately addressed.

That is a very valid concern, given, on the one hand, the significant expansion of urban development into what were once fringe areas and, on the other, the likelihood conditions similar to those experienced in 2003 will become more frequent as a result of climate change.

While it is never possible to be totally prepared for a catastrophe of the magnitude endured by the ACT on January 18, 2003, we can only hope this city is now significantly better prepared than it was on that day.

We owe it those who died and to the thousands more who relive the trauma they experienced 15 years ago every Canberra summer.

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