ACT coroner Maria Doogan wrote after her inquiry into Canberra's devastating bushfires that Saturday, January 18, 2003 would "remain in the consciousness of the ACT community as a day of tragedy, a day of bravery, and a day of loss for many people".
Saturday marks 17 years since the January 18 firestorm forever changed Canberra. Four fires were ignited by lightning strikes on January 8, 2003, three in the ACT and the largest in NSW. Ten days later, the firestorm hit.
Four people died, another 435 people were injured, 487 homes were destroyed, 23 government or commercial buildings were destroyed, including the Mount Stromlo Observatory, 70 per cent of the ACT was burnt and the financial cost was at least $610 million, but possibly as much as $1 billion.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr and Emergency Services Minister Mick Gentleman this week moved to assure residents much had been learnt from 2003 and the territory was well-prepared.
Mr Barr said the territory was being proactive managing and monitoring bushfires burning to the south-west of the ACT.
"Since the state of alert was declared, the ESA has worked closely with NSW Rural Fire Service to strengthen containment lines and give us the best chance possible. We are using all the resources at our disposal, including the Australia Defence Force to respond to this unprecedented situation," he said.
"I have been impressed by the dedication of everyone involved in the state of alert response, and I would like to thank the ACT Emergency Services Agency, and additional personnel from the government, particularly Parks and Conservation staff, and other community organisations, for their commitment to keep Canberrans safe."
Mr Barr recognised the January 18 firestorm anniversary could heighten concerns.
"Today our thoughts are with the victims of the 2003 Canberra bushfires," he said.
"January 18 has always been a day of reflection for this community but this year, in particular, our feelings will be heightened following the devastation of the NSW and Victorian bushfires, and the poor air quality we have been experiencing.
"I would like to remind Canberrans that if you are feeling distressed by the current situation you are not alone. There is support available. It's important to remember that everyone is different and there is no right or wrong way to respond.
"There are many community services that offer counselling and support, and online resources that can give you strategies to help manage distress. You can find these resources at https://www.health.act.gov.au/public-health-alert/heavy-smoke-and-hot-conditions-act."
Ms Doogan said after her exhaustive inquiry that "of all the matters that arose during the inquiry, the one that, from a public interest perspective, was the most compelling and emotive is that of warnings".
"The failure to warn the community - despite senior personnel of the Emergency Services Bureau having knowledge that the fires would burn into the suburbs - was a factor that exacerbated the property losses and resulted in panic and confusion throughout the affected suburbs on the day of the firestorm," Mrs Doogan wrote.
Mr Gentleman said on Friday things had changed.
He said Emergency Services Agency Commissioner Georgeina Whelan and the ESA were doing "a remarkable job keeping the community up to date with the latest information during the state of alert".
"The ACT government has taken significant steps over the last 17 years to ensure that the lessons learned from 2003 have been applied across our emergency services," Mr Gentleman said.
"We are well prepared for emergencies in the ACT and have more communication channels at our disposal than ever before
"Surveillance, mapping, and prediction technology has advanced considerably and we are now working much more closely with our NSW counterparts."
Canberrans could view fires in the region on the ACT Emergency Services Agency website and the NSW Fires Near Me app, Mr Gentleman said.
"We continue to improve our emergency alert system and are working with NSW and South Australia, with a view to establishing real time notifications," Mr Gentleman said.
"In the event that evacuation of any areas is required, we can deploy direct SMS notifications, emergency radio broadcasts and doorknock homes to ensure that no residents are missed."
In her report into the 2003 bushfires, Mrs Doogan also drew special attention to evidence to the inquiry by CSIRO bushfire expert Phil Cheney.
Mr Cheney told the inquiry: "If similar weather and fuel conditions were to occur in the ACT, and historical accounts indicate this is possible, then a fire starting under extreme weather 40km north-west of Canberra could burn to the suburbs in 2-3 hours. It is therefore fanciful in the extreme to imagine that any emergency service organisation is going to be able to stop fires and provide total protection under these conditions".
Seventeen years later, Mr Cheney said he stood by that evidence.
Much had improved in bushfire management in the ACT but "physics don't change that much", Mr Cheney, who turns 80 this year, noted drolly.
He reiterated this week the scenario was for extreme conditions.
"That is the worst likely situation you're going to get and most of the time, it's not realised," he said.
Fires burning to the north-west of the ACT could also be potentially more dangerous as they were fanned by hot dry winds. He said fires burning to the south-west were most likely pushed by more humid air, which could have a less dramatic impact on fire behaviour, he said.
Mr Cheney said he was concerned about public land, including national parks, being closed because there was not enough resourcing to maintain fire trails or clean up after visitors and the implication of that for increasing fuel loads.
"It's easier for them to close it off," he said.
Mr Cheney said he had confidence in the current warnings being given and said some media reports were "over-exaggerated", continuing to show past footage of out-of-control fires crowning in trees when the actual fires still burning might be "one-metre high" and travelling slowly.
The four people who died in the 2003 fires were Dorothy "Dolly' McGrath (Stromlo forestry settlement), Alison Tener (Burrendong Street, Duffy), Peter Brooke (Tullaroop Street, Duffy) and Doug Fraser (Burrendong Street, Duffy).
Mrs Doogan said in her report that the issue of warnings was "one of the most important matters because it was submitted that it is directly relevant to the cause of death of Mrs Alison Tener and the extent of the fires' damage to, and destruction of, property".
Unlike the other three deaths in the January 2003 fires, counsel assisting Mrs Doogan believed a case could be made that failures to issue correct or timely warnings did cause the death of Mrs Tener, a 38-year-old mother of three.
Mrs Tener, who was home alone in Duffy on January 18, was found to have died from smoke inhalation. As late as 2pm on the day of the firestorm she had told a neighbour she was undecided about leaving her home. She had packed some photo albums in the boot of her car. The then Emergency Services Bureau issued an emergency warning at 2.40pm. The firestorm hit Duffy just after 3pm.
The inquiry heard ACT Policing Commander Mandy Newton tried to convince the ESB to call a state of emergency as early as 12.20pm to allow police to force evacuations. The bureau did not believe evacuations were needed.
Mrs Tener's body was found in her bath, leading to submissions she misunderstood the advice for residents to fill their bathtubs with water. Mrs Doogan found that might have been the case but there was insufficient evidence to show that absolutely was what happened.
The bath was not meant to be a place of refuge. Fire authorities recommend people fill baths and sinks with water in case the water supply is cut off. That water could then be used to put out small spot fires in and around the house.
To stay up to date and for more tips on how you can prepare for bushfire, check if you live in a bushfire prone area, and for the latest news on emergency incidents visit www.esa.act.gov.au.