Australia Day: Jane Smyth, educator and survivor of the 2003 bushfires

Jane Smyth never expected losing her house would lead one day to Australia Day accolades.

She and her husband Rick were among the hundreds of Canberrans who watched their house burn to the ground on January 18, 2003.

In the months afterwards, while homeless and with no possessions, she was invited to represent the community on the Emergency Management Committee, formed by ACT Emergency Services.

Jane Smyth, who is receiving an Australia Day award for community service. Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

Jane Smyth, who is receiving an Australia Day award for community service. Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

She has been awarded the medal of the Order of Australia for her work on the committee, and for her many other contributions to the Canberra community.

Coming from an education background, she used her time on the committee as an opportunity to urge emergency services to educate Canberrans about what to do in a fire.

“There was a need to talk about the fires and what had happened, and there was a need to be aware that we'd been so unprepared, and to suggest what might happen in the future,” she said.

“I did very much want to make sure that we never again were unprepared. It was such a shocking thing - 500 homes were lost, people died, and were damaged and scarred for life. It was terrible and it shouldn't have happened.”

Her memories of that day are still vivid 16 years later - from running to the hills and lying face-down on the ground with her husband as the fires raged around them, comforting the hysterical family dog, and fretting, in a confused and traumatised state, over losing all the firewood she had just purchased for their open fireplace.

But she says she and Rick were able to cope with their loss through a lack of attachment to material things.

“I was just so happy to be alive, and that all our family and friends were safe,” she said.

“It is a traumatic thing, but people can rebuild.”

They eventually made the difficult decision to move from Chapman, where they’d lived and raised a family for 30 years, and downsized to a Narrabundah townhouse.

“Obviously there were precious things that we lost that I'd still love to have, but you also lose a lot of rubbish,” she said.

“We just downsized around 15 years earlier than we’d planned.”

Mrs Smyth has been entrenched in community life in Canberra for many years, including as president of the board of the Canberra Mothercraft Society and as a longtime volunteer guide at the National Gallery of Australia.

But it’s her contribution to helping Canberra be better prepared for bushfires that stands out as one of her greatest contributions.

She said a friend staying in Kambah last November was panicking about encroaching bushfires, but was reassured when two emergency service officers knocked on the door to inform them of the situation.

“This was very different, and it was what I was working for, so I was pretty happy to hear that,” she said.

“I had a feeling that it was well in hand, and there were helicopters in use, they had their resources in the field dealing with the fires, they weren't waiting to see what happened.”