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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

On This Day, 18 January; When Canberra Burned



On this day exactly ten years ago – 18 January 2003, a date branded into Canberrans’ minds – the unimaginable happened. Bushfires of incredible intensity crashed into the south-western suburbs and in the space of a few hours destroyed more than 500 homes; more than 200 of them were in the suburb of Duffy where I now live, some 17 in my street alone. It still feels hard to accept that such a thing could happen in a modern capital city. Tragically four people died, but in the shocked confusion it seems miraculous that the number wasn’t far higher, as people fled along streets choked with burning debris, including cars, fallen power lines and dense smoke. 

This is a very different blog from any I’ve written and I hope you can forgive me my self-indulgence. It’s something I need to write about; even now I find my fingers trembling as I type.

Eleven days earlier, on 7 January, during perhaps the most severe drought for a century, major electrical storms swept across south-eastern Australia, starting a series of fires in the Alpine National Park of Victoria before moving north. The next day 40 fires erupted along the western fall of Kosciuszko National Park and another five along the Brindabellas on the Australian Capital Territory ’s western border. Despite heroic fire-fighting efforts the fires continued to grow steadily. On the 18th – a Saturday – temperatures were around 400C, and winds were in excess of 100 kilometres an hours. Catastrophe was inevitable. Another fire came roaring up the steep western slopes from New South Wales, joining with the Brindabella fires; such a situation creates huge bursts of activity, hurling burning material kilometres ahead. A vast open roaring furnace swept down into the Cotter River Valley, up over the Tidbinbilla Range and engulfed the entire much-loved Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve. Rangers sheltering in the new visitor centre, including people I knew well, very nearly died; had they still been in the old one they certainly would have. From there it was possibly only 20 minutes to the suburbs. 

I then lived on the other side of town. Like tens of thousands of us, I spent the day glued horrified to the wonderful local ABC radio station (666!); most of management was on leave, and staff started coming in spontaneously to begin what was to be a marathon of emergency broadcasting. For that time, during the crisis and well beyond it during the major recovery efforts, 666 was the essential source of fire-related information and communication.

I watched the sky spread bruised orange and purple from the south, in helpless anguish for suffering friends and fellow Canberrans, and apprehensive about what might be coming my way over the adjacent Black Mountain. In days to come I continued listening, stayed away from the south-side to respect people’s grief, and in due course went over and helped friends sift the ashes of their life in the hope of finding physical scraps of the past to carry into the future. So far, my story was just that of any of us who were here at that time and not directly affected. 

Like everyone I tried to do my bit, and my role became one of helping to keep Canberrans informed in the subsequent weeks of the situation in the ranges, particularly Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve and Namadgi National Park. I was 666’s ‘resident naturalist’ with a regular broadcast slot. Because of this I was approached by ACT Parks and Conservation and asked to accompany them on tours of inspection of areas which would be closed to the public for months to come, and report on them. Emails I later got in response to my reports confirmed that indeed this was something that many people – including those who’d lost everything – wanted and needed to know. 

For twenty years Namadgi had been my back yard. I’d written two natural history guide books and a wildflower guide about it and I knew and loved the park as well as most people. One of the more useful things I’ve done in my life was to write a report in 1991 which assisted in getting the northern part of the Brindabellas included in Namadgi. 


Six days after the fires I was taken to Tidbinbilla. From within the Weston Creek suburbs all the way out to Tidbinbilla – and on a second trip later all the way up into the Brindabellas in Namadgi – I saw scarcely a square metre of green. The one exception was a metre-wide ribbon of tree ferns in one creek line on the eastern slopes. On the plains trees were bent parallel to the ground by the inconceivable ferocity of the fire winds. Paddocks that had been eaten bare to the ground by stock somehow carried a fire so intense that it burnt through the base of power poles. I saw endless thousands of hectares of burnt trunks and no leaves; in some slightly less intensively burnt areas the dead leaves were beginning to fall. On the steep western slopes, soil had had all the organic material burnt out of it – it didn’t even feel like soil. Great granite boulders were shedding layers of skin.

The lush wet eucalypt forest gullies at Tidbinbilla, with some of the most beautiful and soothing walks I know, contained just stark leafless trunks standing over utterly bare ground and the oozing creek. Tree ferns had vaporised. “It’s Mordor” I wrote at the time. I watched the surreal movement of the two stoical workers in white overalls and breathing masks moving through a skeletal landscape collecting six day old carcases and piling them into a truck to take to the pit, 16 metres long, 3 metres wide and four metres deep and filling. When I stared down into it there were already over 500 kangaroo and wallaby carcasses in it, plus 130 sheep from neighbouring properties. A couple of koalas were added as I watched. It was – literally for me – the stuff of nightmares. The memory of the stench stayed with me for a long time; even after a shower that night I could still taste it. 
Burnt Alpine Ash, Namadgi National Park.
A week later I was with the first Parks Service group high in Namadgi National Park when we discovered that, contrary to earlier reports, the internationally significant Ginini Flat sphagnum bogs had burnt, destroying hundreds of years of water-holding moss growth. That was one of the bleakest moments of my life. (The recovery work is still continuing; just last week another fire nearly destroyed the efforts, but parks staff saved it.) In the coming weeks I made further trips with rangers to chart the natural recovery, which is an integral part of the nature of Australia. Those trips, incidentally, helped my own recovery process. In the event 95% of Namadgi National Park eventually burnt, and the fires were not finally extinguished until rain on 21 February, 45 days after they started.

Single sprouting eucalypt in burnt forest, 8 weeks after the fire.
I initially sent my written reports to friends, and then to a natural history chat-line. They ‘went viral’, as they say. I received emails from all over the world. In less than three weeks I wrote over 300 emails to people seeking more information and such reassurance as I could offer for the future of the areas.

I guess the only reassurance is in the mighty cycles of nature; we see only a tiny portion of a single cycle. The mountains have seen it all before – though probably not in European times – and will doubtless see it again, though hopefully not for centuries. The Mediterranean landscapes of southern Australia are some of the most fire-adapted in the world – I’ll certainly talk about that in a forthcoming blog. The natural fire cycle of the Alpine Ash forests (Eucalyptus delegatensis) is probably of the order of 300-400 years; we’ve not been here long enough to see a single cycle.

And life moves in unexpected ways; after a pretty bleak couple of years I found love again soon after the fires, as a direct result of the after-fire radio work, leading ultimately to my move across town to the heart of the fire grounds.
Hypoxis hygrometrica in a burnt landscape.
Later that year, when I could take people up into the high country, many of the trees were sprouting the fuzzy green cloak of epicormic growth, and the ground flowering was like nothing I’d seen there. We drove through 25 kilometres of a white carpet of Prickly Starwort (Stellaria pungens), which normally is a scattered little herb. There must have been thousands of millions of seeds in the soil, awaiting a fire; no-one had predicted that. Every year the healing progresses and one day it will look again as it did, but I’ll not see it in my lifetime.
Stellaria pungens in burnt Snow Gum forest, December 2003.
This morning, after Louise finishes hosting a special radio broadcast from the site of the destroyed and rebuilt Mount Stromlo Observatory just up the road, helping people tell their stories again, we’re leaving town for the weekend. Anniversaries are funny things. If you’ve read this far, thank you. Next time it will be lighter, and more ‘normal’; so will life, hopefully.

My apologies for the paucity – and poor quality – of photos (pre-digital days). I have none from the first two difficult inspections; whether I left the camera home, or was just too shocked to use it, I can’t now recall.

BACK MONDAY.

4 comments:

Susan said...

Like you, my blog post for 18 Jan is about the Canberra fires (it's still 17 Jan here and I wrote the post a few weeks ago because I knew the anniversary was coming up). We watched it live on the internet at home in London, and I can remember bursting into tears telling colleagues that Tidbinbilla had been destroyed and all the animals killed. 6 weeks after the fire I was visiting Canberra and took photos in Namadgi, some of a totally black landscape, some with new shoots appearing. Since we've just returned from Canberra a month ago, I've got photos from 10 years on too. I'll link to this post of yours so people can read an account by someone who was actually there.

Denis Wilson said...

Good report, Ian. Thanks
I also was tuned to ABC radio 666, as I raced back from Robertson to be with friends in Canberra. The 666 people all did a fantastic job.
(Still do).
I recently asked Peter Fullagar about Lyrebird recovery in the Brindabellas, and he said they are back in large numbers. Amazing recovery.
Not sure the Corroboree Frogs did as well.
Anyway, thanks, and enjoy your weekend away.
Denis Wilson

Mac_fromAustralia said...

Thank you for your post. Reading some of these tenth anniversary writings I find I am still learning things I didn't know about that day, such as the sphagnum bogs.

Denis, good to hear about the lyrebirds. I was lucky enough to see one in Tidbinbilla once, a female so no spectacular show but it felt an incredible privilege anyway. I had tried not to think about their possible fate.

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks Susan, Denis and Mac. Specifically, thanks Susan for linking my posting to yours.
When we first went into the Brindabellas that day, the number of lyrebirds was surprising - we saw at least 20. I believe that in part they shelter in wombat burrows; we know they'll use mine shafts. However in subsequent months numbers plummeted, as food was just too hard to find. Now however they've come back, thank goodness.