Canberrans who lost their homes in the 2003 bushfires are worried the ACT Emergency Services Agency is not releasing information about the current crisis that is timely and clear enough. That claim has been rejected by the highest levels of both government and the emergency services.
The residents are particularly fearful of fires burning out-of-control in NSW, to the south-west of Canberra, in the Adaminaby complex, with south-westerly winds predicted on Friday evening potentially pushing them closer to the national capital.
They also fear ACT authorities are still caught in cross-border bureaucracy with NSW, about who can comment on what fire, potentially leading to lags in the release of information.
But ACT Emergency Services commissioner Georgeina Whelan, chief minister Andrew Barr and Emergency Services minister Mick Gentleman on Thursday all assured Canberrans much had changed since 2003 and they would receive timely and accurate warnings should the fires threaten them.
Commissioner Whelan said she personally believed ACT residents were getting "the best information in our country at the moment".
"It's not lost on me the anxiety that is out there in the community," she said.
"A number of my firefighters, a number of my staff also lived 2003, through those bushfires. It is their learnings, it is the advice that they have given to me which now makes us such a better organisation. We are extending ourselves as best we can to keep you up-to-date."
But she did agree to take on board a suggestion the ESA website be more regularly updated "and that we do not have any delays in the updates of the fires".
Mr Gentleman has also agreed to meet with the concerned residents on Monday.
Laurence Buchanan, whose home in Duffy was levelled by the January 18 firestorm almost 17 years ago, said commissioner Whelan had told residents the ESA website was the "single source of truth" for the ACT about information on fires.
But Mr Buchanan was concerned the most timely information was not being displayed on the ESA website.
He said there were delays of hours in the updates around the Hospital Hill fire that broke out in the Namadgi National Park this week and has since been extinguished. He said the status of the fire on the incident map while it was still burning was not updated for hours and left people in the dark.
Mr Buchanan said the ESA website should be updated at least hourly about the bushfire risk and the information should be displayed prominently without users having to search the site for it. He also called for an ESA-specific app for Canberra residents, saying the NSW Rural Fire Service app had inherent delays in updating ACT fires as it received data from the ACT.
"We just want people to be warned, informed because in 2003 we had four people die and 500 homes destroyed and we don't want that to happen again," he said.
Wayne West, whose property in the Brindabellas was burnt out in 2003, said there also seemed to be bureaucratic roadblocks around ACT authorities giving Canberrans warnings about fires burning in nearby NSW.
Mr West said even after the firestorm of 2003 when the big McIntyre's Hut fire in NSW burnt into the ACT with disastrous effect, he was still concerned about jurisdictional argy-bargy around fires and how warnings would get out.
"Why can't they be open about it and get rid of the pussy-footing around," he said.
Coroner Maria Doogan, after the the 2003 bushfires, focused on community warnings, recommending emergency services provide regular updates on any fire threat, including on its website, and even, when required, that doorknocking take place in advance of a fire.
Ms Whelan, who was in Tumut on Thursday, said she was speaking regularly with her NSW counterparts and the Adaminaby complex would not be a threat to households in Canberra on Friday.
"If they were to be under threat we would advise that accordingly. We have a very good warning system here in the ACT," she said.
Ms Whealen said the warning system was the most important advice to follow if a fire did threaten homes.
"Our warnings will go out by social media, they will go out by the website, they will go out by setting up a polygon system which will actually come to people's mobile phones if absolutely necessary and the landlines, it will go to all the television stations and on the radio," she said.
Ms Whelan said the telephone alert system had been improved and tested since a 2011 chemical fire in Mitchell when there were problems getting the warnings through.
"I am confident that our system will reach residents in a very timely manner," she said.
Ms Whelan said the urban fringe of Canberra was also different to 2003.
"It's a very well-managed and planned interface," she said.
Mr Barr said he understood people's anxiety but since 2003, mapping and fire-detection systems had improved, there was better collaboration between NSW and the ACT and technology was vastly enhanced, including social media now being an important warning tool. He said the state-of-alert response was also new since 2003.
"If we need to move into a state of emergency, we will, and there will be plenty of notice for people," he said.
"I do want to stress we are putting people on notice now. If anyone says 'we weren't warned about impending bushfire risk' - here is a warning. There is a risk."
Both Mr West and Mr Laurence praised the efforts of on-the-ground firefighters and said they were only seeking assurances from the decision-makers.