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Fires: 14 Years have passed but the memories linger

By John Hargreaves - 23 January 2017 14

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Almost everyone has a story about the 2003 bushfires and I have a few myself. I thought I’d share a couple with you to get a thread of stories going to add to the history of that horrible day, some 14 years on.

I reckon the memories are as fresh as the day itself.

I was a mere backbencher in January 2003 and the week before had taken my father to Malaysia as a treat for his 75th birthday. We were due to return on 19 January. He suffered greatly from emphysema and lived in a two-bed unit in Duffy. His wife was visiting friends elsewhere in Canberra when the disaster struck. Had he been in his home he would have perished from smoke inhalation. As it turned out, the house next door was lost and his singed.

We returned on the Sunday morning and I rushed home after arranging for Dad to go to my brother’s house in Jerrabomberra. When I got home I found that apart form a bit of singeing, our place in Wanniassa was OK, thanks to the quick thinking of the child bride.

I was really concerned for my constituents and went straight over to Kambah and got there around 11 or so. The resilience of the people who suffered still rocks me.

I stood ankle deep in warm ashes in ruins on Colquhoun Street in the Mt Taylor Estate and held a woman as she sobbed. Tears flooded. She was a single French lady with no insurance and only the clothes she stood up in. What could I do? Promising to alert the relief authorities, I moved on to a friend’s house in Ammon Place. He was fine but directed me to his friends Greg and Jo up the street.

Here was the same story. Ashes still smouldering. A garden shed miraculously saved by the neighbour spraying water on it because his hose wouldn’t reach Greg and Jo’s house. He felt a futility but still needed to do something.

Greg leant on his car with his head in his hands, shaking with disbelief. Jo was wandering around the ruins. I spoke to her and her strength and resilience was incredible. When it was clear that they had to evacuate, they put the kids in the car with as much as they could carry and looked for their three little dogs. Only one could be found. And so, they took off for their lives.

When I turned up, Jo told me her story. She pointed to the red and yellow plastic trike in the midst of the ashes. Unscathed! She told me that one of the two lost dogs had just bolted once let out and they haven’t seen him since. But inside the shed that the neighbour saved was the third little dog. Had the neighbour not watered the shed, the dog would have perished. When they looked inside to see what had been saved, out he ran to be greeted with tears from Greg and Jo.

She asked me how I liked her rose garden. She said it took a lot of effort to grow black roses and chuckled to herself. Taking me by the hand, she led me to the water meter. She said “you just have to see this for yourself, cos if I told you, you wouldn’t believe me”. When the fire raged over their property, the intense heat sucked all of the moisture from their lawn and created a hole around the pipes leading to the meter. Inside that hole, a fragment of a magazine had drifted and lay face up. I could see in large font that what was written on it was “Life Sucks!” Again, Jo chuckled to herself.

So impressed was I that I nominated her for a position on the disaster relief authority and she served us well. Three weeks later, I saw her and asked how she was and given that she had arranged relief for so many, was there anything she needed? She asked for some new underwear. She had been so busy looking after everyone else, and doing hand washing nightly in temporary accommodation, she hadn’t sought relief for herself. How diminished did I feel in the presence of such a woman?

I ran into a mate of mine who also lived in Kambah albeit another part of the suburb. As the fire approached, he plugged his drainpipes, did all the right things, and then hooked up his trailer and rang another mate of ours and off they went to help those who were losing everything, doing anything and everything they could, including fighting spot fires. Everyday heroes doing everyday heroics.

The child bride had in fact, hopped onto our roof, place a sprinkler hose across the roofline and turned the water on. She watched as the fire approached and saw the burning embers cascade over our house, our home. I was still airborne and of absolutely no help to her at all. I married a heroine and a strong one at that.

As I wandered around the ruined parts of my electorate and spoke to people, I sensed a strength and a camaraderie and support for those who fought and lost, for those who had to rebuild from nothing with nothing. How I wished that I had been here! When I saw the headlines in Sydney Airport, I thought it was a joke until I read the details.

Many readers will have stories. I have just given a couple. Perhaps the healing can be assisted by the sharing of stories. As my late mother said once: “I see you are in pain. I can’t feel your pain because it is uniquely yours, but I have been in a similar situation and can share your pain for a half an hour if you want me to.”

Fourteen years on, some of our friends and some of our neighbours still grieve. Four lives lost, 500 homes lost, so many homes damaged extensively, so much heartache and despair.

I’m happy to share some of the pain, if you’ll let me. Tell your stories. Tell the stories that were not chronicled. Tell the personal stories which made us the community we are.

What’s Your opinion?


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14 Responses to
Fires: 14 Years have passed but the memories linger
1
RiotFrog 11:15 am
23 Jan 17
#

“child bride” ?!?

2
John Moulis 12:42 pm
23 Jan 17
#

The thing I remember was how ABC radio 666 was lionised as being wonderful during the emergency. They even won a Chief Minister’s award. I turned them on about an hour into the crisis and they were broadcasting cricket. I have heard that local ABC people had to go through bureaucratic hoops with the Sydney bosses before they could pull the plug on the cricket and go into emergency mode. At one stage it was believed that Cricket Australia could sue the ABC for breach of contract if they didn’t stay with the cricket.

I went up the dial to 2CC and they were in full emergency mode. The siren was going every few minutes, ads were pulled and people were phoning in about the fires in their area.

About 30 minutes later I switched back to 666 and they were playing a pop song. After the song was a long interview with the Emergency Services boss who didn’t have a clue about what was going on. This was borne out a few weeks later when it was revealed that SES workers had to tune into and get information from the Queanbeyan radio because the ACT one was in disarray and unreliable. I switched back to 2CC and never went back to 666.

Another thing I remember was how the electricity was cut off then restored to the houses across the road the following day while we were still lighting candles and cooking meals with spirit burners for a further three days. Each night I looked with envy at the brightly lit houses across the street. It was before smartphones and the only Internet connection I had was the desktop. When the power finally came back on I checked my emails and there were hundreds of them. I just deleted all of them.

Last year I was listening to the overnight show on 2CC which was being relayed from Melbourne. There was a bushfire emergency at Geelong and the emergency siren came on. The same siren which came over the radio every few minutes while we were fighting off the flames in 2003. It brought back all those chilling memories of the 2003 bushfires.

3
Chris Mordd Richards 2:43 pm
23 Jan 17
#

RiotFrog said :

“child bride” ?!?

gotta admit, I raised an eyebrow at reading that also. Presuming John’s wife is ok with being referred to like this thus his usage, John?

4
creative_canberran 4:51 pm
23 Jan 17
#

John Moulis said :

The thing I remember was how ABC radio 666 was lionised as being wonderful during the emergency. They even won a Chief Minister’s award. I turned them on about an hour into the crisis and they were broadcasting cricket. I have heard that local ABC people had to go through bureaucratic hoops with the Sydney bosses before they could pull the plug on the cricket and go into emergency mode. At one stage it was believed that Cricket Australia could sue the ABC for breach of contract if they didn’t stay with the cricket.

I went up the dial to 2CC and they were in full emergency mode. The siren was going every few minutes, ads were pulled and people were phoning in about the fires in their area.

About 30 minutes later I switched back to 666 and they were playing a pop song. After the song was a long interview with the Emergency Services boss who didn’t have a clue about what was going on. This was borne out a few weeks later when it was revealed that SES workers had to tune into and get information from the Queanbeyan radio because the ACT one was in disarray and unreliable. I switched back to 2CC and never went back to 666.

I share much of your recollection and did the same thing swapping to 1206. 2CC did fantastic and reliable work that afternoon, and even the local news team at Win (with help from their Nine colleagues) stood up to the plate in difficult circumstances.

666 were slow to change transmission. I’m not sure if there’s a legal requirement for broadcasters to broadcast the SEWS and associated message, have to check, but once a broadcaster receives that, they should act. If cricket and contracts really interfered, then it was a big fail for common sense.

5
Russ 5:09 pm
23 Jan 17
#

I don’t have any kind of anecdote from the day, except the memory of seeing burning houses as I drove to my sister’s house to rescue her shoes.

What I have noticed is that since then, at some point, the ESA decided to rewrite reality and added this tagline to their name:

“The trusted agency for emergency management in the ACT”

Which based on their track record, including this one, and major “insadents” since, would have to be the most arrogant and blatantly false claim I’ve seen. Yes, we trust the actual fireys and ambos, but I don’t believe many people would have much faith in the ESA’s management.

6
John Hargreaves 5:17 pm
23 Jan 17
#

RiotFrog said :

“child bride” ?!?

My beloved wife

7
John Hargreaves 5:18 pm
23 Jan 17
#

John Moulis said :

The thing I remember was how ABC radio 666 was lionised as being wonderful during the emergency. They even won a Chief Minister’s award. I turned them on about an hour into the crisis and they were broadcasting cricket. I have heard that local ABC people had to go through bureaucratic hoops with the Sydney bosses before they could pull the plug on the cricket and go into emergency mode. At one stage it was believed that Cricket Australia could sue the ABC for breach of contract if they didn’t stay with the cricket.

I went up the dial to 2CC and they were in full emergency mode. The siren was going every few minutes, ads were pulled and people were phoning in about the fires in their area.

About 30 minutes later I switched back to 666 and they were playing a pop song. After the song was a long interview with the Emergency Services boss who didn’t have a clue about what was going on. This was borne out a few weeks later when it was revealed that SES workers had to tune into and get information from the Queanbeyan radio because the ACT one was in disarray and unreliable. I switched back to 2CC and never went back to 666.

Another thing I remember was how the electricity was cut off then restored to the houses across the road the following day while we were still lighting candles and cooking meals with spirit burners for a further three days. Each night I looked with envy at the brightly lit houses across the street. It was before smartphones and the only Internet connection I had was the desktop. When the power finally came back on I checked my emails and there were hundreds of them.

I just deleted all of them.

Last year I was listening to the overnight show on 2CC which was being relayed from Melbourne. There was a bushfire emergency at Geelong and the emergency siren came on. The same siren which came over the radio every few minutes while we were fighting off the flames in 2003. It brought back all those chilling memories of the 2003 bushfires.

Didn’t know about this bit

8
Masquara 8:41 pm
23 Jan 17
#

There was a woman in my workplace back in 2007 who had a short fuse. She drove a really crappy car for someone in her position. I eventually discovered that she was an uninsured fire victim starting again from nothing in her 40s. I wish the workplace had alerted more of us, because she was very difficult to deal with, and had we known …

9
Southerly_views 9:56 pm
23 Jan 17
#

I have many personal memories of the fires including the suburban hillsides on fire along with the homes and cars burning along deserted roads. After working all night in the fire zones of Weston Wreek, Woden and Tuggeranong there is one odd memory that stands out. We were covered in dust and ash as was our vehicle which needed refueling. There was no electricity in the burnt suburbs so we had to drive to the petrol station in Manuka which had pumps unaffected by the fires.

After leaving all the devastation in the western suburbs to drive ten minutes over Hindmarsh Drive and into Manuka we were astonished to find a surreal scene of southside normality. We drove past all the cafes, chock-a-block full of clean and casually dressed people, sipping their lattes and eating Sunday breakfast as if nothing had happened. Everyone was reading a copy of The Canberra Times filled with pages of stories and photos about the death and destruction barely out of sight over the hill. We must have looked crazy as we stood at the petrol station in our filthy uniforms with our mouths wide open staring at the people across the road.

That sensation of the stark contrast between Canberra’s fortunate and unfortunate has never left me…..

10
Chris Mordd Richards 11:19 pm
23 Jan 17
#

Masquara said :

There was a woman in my workplace back in 2007 who had a short fuse. She drove a really crappy car for someone in her position. I eventually discovered that she was an uninsured fire victim starting again from nothing in her 40s. I wish the workplace had alerted more of us, because she was very difficult to deal with, and had we known …

A good reason in general why one should not judge without all the facts at hand, give someone the benefit of the doubt where you can. 🙂

11
wildturkeycanoe 6:47 am
24 Jan 17
#

As heart-wrenching and touching as this story is, I’d also like to hear about the Mr. Fluffy families and their plight. With over 1000 homes needing to be demolished entirely, some families having to leave belongings behind and tens of thousands gambling with the prospect of getting asbestosis at some point in their future, I’m sure there are some stories to tell. I think it is just as big a crisis as the bushfire, though not as exciting a story to tell.

12
Charlotte Harper 7:45 am
24 Jan 17
#

wildturkeycanoe said :

As heart-wrenching and touching as this story is, I’d also like to hear about the Mr. Fluffy families and their plight. With over 1000 homes needing to be demolished entirely, some families having to leave belongings behind and tens of thousands gambling with the prospect of getting asbestosis at some point in their future, I’m sure there are some stories to tell. I think it is just as big a crisis as the bushfire, though not as exciting a story to tell.

I think that’s an excellent idea, @wildturkeycanoe, thank you for the suggestions. We’ll put together a similar article calling for such stories in coming days. Let’s stick to the fire stories in this thread, though.

13
Chris Mordd Richards 9:54 am
24 Jan 17
#

Charlotte Harper said :

wildturkeycanoe said :

As heart-wrenching and touching as this story is, I’d also like to hear about the Mr. Fluffy families and their plight. With over 1000 homes needing to be demolished entirely, some families having to leave belongings behind and tens of thousands gambling with the prospect of getting asbestosis at some point in their future, I’m sure there are some stories to tell. I think it is just as big a crisis as the bushfire, though not as exciting a story to tell.

I think that’s an excellent idea, @wildturkeycanoe, thank you for the suggestions. We’ll put together a similar article calling for such stories in coming days. Let’s stick to the fire stories in this thread, though.

Great idea WTC, that should make a good article (series?) itself too I agree. +1

14
watto23 8:38 pm
24 Jan 17
#

I remember the bushfires vividly. I was a lucky one, some of my clothes got a bit singed, like many I didn’t have a lot of time to do anything, but chose to stay and fight. I loaded the cat, sporting memorabilia and a few other things into the car just in case I chose to go. My neighbour, who is a dutch lady was not sure what to do and I told her to go. A few days later she told me a story of how as a child they had some devastating floods in the Netherlands and she remembers sitting on the roof until she was rescued.

I really wasn’t prepared to face a full on fire, I got the hose ready and realised water pressure was pretty poor just as the front reached the firetrail behind my back fence. I used what water pressure I had put out a few small spot fires as they jumped the trail, I stamp a few others out, I was concerned the rather large gum trees next to my house were enough fuel to set my house alight. Then the professionals turned up and I fled. I couldn’t see, could barely breath, I drove off in tears to my parents who were in a relatively safe suburb.

I returned later that night relieved to see no homes were lost in my suburb, but there was the surreal glow from lots of tiny fires still slowly burning out across the Murrumbidgee.

I don’t recall the ABC being a problem, it was a great source of information from my memory. I do remember hearing the cricket (eerily an Ashes test match), as I drove home in the afternoon and the city was dark at 2pm or so, from all the smoke. I think the fires took all by surprise, but when I turned the radio back on all I got was fire alerts and I think thats when I realised Canberra was at risk of having a bushfire on its doorsteps. I think from when I first saw the fire come over the furthest peak to my back fence took about 30 minutes.

I just hope we learnt from the fires.

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