Canberra Bushfires from the Watson Perspective.


Saturday 18 Jan 2003

Saturday 18th January was the day for Abi's birthday party. She wanted a 'disco party', and everything was set up for it to start at 5.30pm. The party was all prepared, and we were sitting down at around half past three, when a 'Civil defence alert' message started on the local commercial radio. I initially thought that it was an advert, but it soon became obvious that it was a serious alert about a major deterioration in the nearby bush fires, which were giving an imminent threat to Canberra, including our suburb in particular.


After a stunned silence for a minute or two, we a look outside at the smoke over the back garden.

Bushfire smoke seen from the back garden.

We took the threat seriously. We took down curtains, moved furniture away from windows, hosed down the house, blocked the down pipes and filled the gutters with water. The garden sprinkler went on to the top of the roof. The water restrictions that were in force went out of the window.


Countryside is only 100 metres to our south, and we could see the fire approaching. There were many helicopters water bombing, lots of fire engines, and roads were closed. All the neighbours helped each other to prepare, and some kids were evacuated. The wind shifted, and the fire front, which was about 1km from us was now aiming directly for us. I took this big panorama photo at this time, with the smoke blowing in from the west.


360 degree view of the approaching fire from the end of the road.Click on the picture for an expanded view. It will take some time to download, as the picture is 700KB big.


This is a combination of many photos, it's a bit wobbly (!) because it was hand held. It goes round through 360 degrees, and shows the size of the smoke plume. I think that the main fire front was between 1 and 2 Km upwind from this point.


Shortly after this, the wind shifted to a cooler easterly, as night fell, and the immediate threat to us was over. There is one suburb (Holt) to the west of our suburb (Higgins), before countryside starts. To the west of Holt is a golf course and a large electricity substation. The rubbish dump is about 2 km to the north west of that. During the night, the fire spread north, to the west of Holt, and there was a large explosion from the substation that lit up the horizon. Areas of Holt had partial evacuations because of the level of smoke. Children in particular were evacuated.


About 4Km upwind from us is the major waterworks for Canberra. It was damaged by fire. Six fire trucks were also destroyed by fire that overtook them there, according to the newspaper. No fireman lost their life, amazingly, which is testament to a new Australian invention. A couple of years ago, a rural firefighting crew died when their truck was overwhelmed by fire, so fire trucks now all have screens that go over the windows, and sprinklers that douse the cab. As the last thing, the crew get into the cab, cover themselves with as much wet stuff as they can, turn on the sprinklers, and wait in their makeshift cocoon while their unit is destroyed by the fire. It worked. Amazing stuff!!


It seems that the biggest danger is when the strong wind picks up embers and carries them onto your house. The houses that were saved seem to have been the ones where there were people on the roofs with hoses to extinguish the embers before they set the house on fire.


The Riding for the Disabled school is just over the road from us in the countryside. The local mounted police came with their horse box, and moved the horses to the local football pitch adjacent to Woolworths at Kippax. This morning, I counted over 60 horses on the footy pitch, and a lot of horse poo!!


The number of unsolicited, spontaneous offers of help that were coming in were remarkable: communication was by local radio and telephone: when someone from down south rang in to say that their kids' basketball team was arriving by coach in North Canberra and they couldn't get there because the roads were blocked, offers of help had come in within a few minutes to look after the kids.


The countryside around us is open farmland, with trees. The drought is so fierce that not only is everything tinder dry, but also there isn't as much grass as there could be This means that the fire is fierce, but short. About 10 Km south of us however, is a group of six suburbs called Weston Creek, which abut a pine plantation. Most destroyed houses were in the western part of these suburbs. The area called Duffy lost around 60 homes, and a total of over 200 homes were lost throughout Canberra overnight. The biggest number we have heard is 388. We have heard that houses were lost in both Higgins and Holt, but we haven't heard where. As I write this on midday Sunday, a new fire has started at Charnwood, 20 minutes bike-ride to the north of us.


When the alert started, we also prepared vacant neighbours' houses. Our next door neighbour's house is being house-sat by a friend whilst the neighbours are overseas. The house-sitter returned in the evening: he had been in the South-Canberra suburb of Kambah looking after the house where he had been staying before, as it was still vacant. Kambah is beside a forested hill called Mount Taylor. The fire was so intense on Mount Taylor, that it was generating its own firestorm. The first indication he had of this was when a large branch broke through a window, went across the room, through the wall on the opposite side of the room, and into the next room. This, not unreasonably, frightened him. Roofs were torn off houses nearby by the winds from the firestorm, and parts ended up 500 metres away. He said that it was like a cyclone, and that the gardens were quite destroyed. He was on the roof when fireballs started to fly down the side of Mount Taylor, driven by the wind. One of them came within 30 metres of him, before it was turned aside by a fluke of the wind. They ignited everything in their path. If he was frightened before, he was much more so after this experience! (his language was pertinent, and appropriate to the situation…)


I have two colleagues who live in Weston Park. Both were out of town. One's house is intact, although houses nearby were lost; but the other had a two storey house of similar size to ours: the largest remaining wall is two or three housebricks high, apparently. To say that nothing is left is an understatement.


The weather was clear, (apart from the smoke …), with the temperature in the high thirties, but the killer was the wind, about a force six, and bone dry from the south west, driving the fire out of the Brindabella mountains to the south west of us. In this situation, embers can take the fire jumping 10 Km in front of the fire front, and its rate of progress is terrifying. A lot of the houses that burnt down were not attended by any fire service, because the fires were simply too big for the fire services to cope: if you wanted your house saved, you had to get on and do it yourself. One person said that his neighbour's burning house was waterbombed by a helicopter, but the fire was so fierce that it made no difference.


Mike Watson


Midday (Eastern OzTime), Sunday 19 January 2003

| Next|

| Home|