Why fire-prone Canberra should never become complacent

Why fire-prone Canberra should never become complacent

Living in the bush capital is not without risk, particularly as climate change signals a strong likelihood of harsher fire weather.

Monday, January 18 marks the anniversary of the 2003 bushfire that tore through western Canberra and its surrounds, leaving four people dead, 490 injured and more than 500 homes destroyed.

On that day, the weather played a huge role, as temperatures reached 40 degrees and the winds blew in excess of 60 kilometres an hour.

People in the Egret Aboriginal community are urged to leave their homes.

People in the Egret Aboriginal community are urged to leave their homes.

Emergency Services Agency commissioner Dominic Lane has warned the community not to be complacent that such a catastrophic event could never happen again and said living in the bush capital "comes with an element of risk".

He described south-east Australia as "the most fire-prone" region and Canberra as "one of the most fire-prone cities" in the nation.


The sense of danger is compounded by research that indicates the environment is becoming warmer and drier.

Studies by institutions like the Bureau of Meteorology and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation show with high confidence that "climate change will result in a harsher fire-weather climate in the future".

Geoff Cary, associate professor in bushfire science at the Australian National University's Fenner School of Environment and Society, said the average annual temperature could increase by 2 to 3 degrees by 2070.

"There is growing evidence that global warming has already resulted in worse bushfire conditions and increased area burned in the wider Canberra region," Dr Cary said.

"Severe bushfires that threaten lives and houses will occur in the Canberra region in the future, even without the influence of climate change."

Dr Cary said large bushfires occurred in the region when several precursors aligned and the ignition was not immediately contained.

"People are the main cause of bushfire ignitions, even though the 2003 fires were caused by lightning," Dr Cary said.

"Ignition is likely to increase in places like the Canberra region, where the population is growing."

For the ESA commissioner, working closely with the community is as much a part of the process as "continuing to try to understand" the effects of climate change on firefighting strategies.

"What is important for us from a bushfire perspective is utilising adaptive management," Mr Lane said.

The practice includes monitoring the impact of what is being done, committing to research and analysis and having the flexibility to modify programs to reduce current and future risk.

Mr Lane said the key was to learn from the "catastrophic fire of 2003", which made "a strong impression on the psyche of Canberra".

"The challenge is to make sure that, over a period of time, apathy does not creep back in, with the risk diminishing in people's thoughts," he said.

Minister for Police and Emergency Services Simon Corbell has stated that bushfires are "an inevitable part of living in the ACT" and a natural occurrence.

Mary Lynn Mather

Mary Lynn is a reporter for the Canberra Times and Chronicle

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