18 January 2023

Canberra bushfire memories still fresh 20 years on

| Ross Solly
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Firefighting helicopter in action

An air crane dumps water on a firefront. Photo: NSW RFS

This time 20 years ago I remember waking up to one of those scorching Canberra January mornings and making the decision to pack the swimmers and head down to McKenzies Beach on the South Coast.

We had talked about it the evening before over a cold drink at a pub in Ainslie. We knew the forecast was for a hot day. We also heard that the bushfires outside of Canberra were still not under control, but there certainly was no sense of panic.

The drive down to the South Coast was not particularly memorable. There was obviously some smoke off to the distance, which seemed to be another good reason to head out of town. Judging by the stream of traffic heading to the Clyde, we weren’t the only ones.

READ ALSO Canberra author says 20 years on, there are still many reasons to heal the firestorm’s scars

Barely had we entered the water at McKenzies though when everything suddenly changed. The sky all of a sudden became eerily black. At first we thought we were in for one hell of a thunderstorm.

We headed back to the car. That’s when it hit home. Our car was covered in ash, and there was a strong smell of smoke in the air. We decided to head back to Canberra.

The drive back was like the scene from an apocalyptic movie. The sky was so dark we needed our lights on. The traffic was bumper-to-bumper. The smell of smoke was burning our nostrils. But until we got to the top of the Clyde, and finally within range of what was then 666 Canberra, we had no real idea what awaited us.

Even when we did finally pick up reception the magnitude of what was unfolding was still not clear. It was obvious emergency services were struggling to keep up, and initial information was patchy.

Canberra bushfires aftermath

The aftermath of Canberra’s devastating bushfires. Photo: NSW RFS

We got home and were obviously relieved to find the fires were nowhere near our place. We closed all the windows and tried as best as possible to keep the smell of smoke out, and then decided to head to work.

At the time I was working in the ABC Bureau at Parliament House. It was probably a bit reckless, but I decided to head out to Chapman, where there were reports fire was threatening houses.

When I arrived the fire wasn’t just threatening Chapman – much of the suburb was ablaze. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, as helpless homeowners stood on the street, unable to do anything to stop their properties burning to the ground.

I called in to ABC Radio, who had been broadcasting live all day, and went on air to describe what I could see. It was one of those moments when it was impossible to overstate the gravity of the situation.

READ ALSO 20 years on from 2003 disaster, council’s bushfire warning must be heeded

Remarkably, while I was on air, one of the water helicopters which had been toiling all day flew overhead and dumped its load on the house I was standing in front of and describing on the radio. Sadly, as I reported at the time, it made very little impact.

I later found out emergency services had been listening to ABC broadcasts during the day, because the eye witness reports were providing fresh updates on the suburbs where the fires were out of control.

It was a long, terrifying night. The next day I returned to the same streets. What I saw were scenes I had only ever seen in the movies – smoldering houses, burned out vehicles, distressed residents.

It took a while for everything to sink in. And then, of course, people started asking questions.

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Yes it was totally out of control and no one knew what was going on.

I remember hearing on ABC radio that Kambah hadn’t been impacted, despite me seeing houses engulfed in fire just a couple of streets away. We didn’t see an emergency services person, fire truck or police officer until the next day, they were shocked how much damage the fire and tornado had done.

I’ll never forget a small Kambah supermarket whose staff drove the streets handing out ice creams to exhausted residents just hours after the firefront. (I never knew which shop it was, but I think it was the little one that used to be on Mannheim). I also wish I’d photographed a kid thoroughly enjoying an icy pole standing out the front of his destroyed house, a sad but humorous moment.

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