19 January 2023

How, on the darkest of days, Canberra became a community

| Sally Hopman
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2003 Canberra bushfires

Few can forget how the sky changed colour so scarily on that afternoon of 18 January, 2003, when fires swept through Canberra, killing four people and destroying 488 homes. Photo: File.

We’ve all been asking each other the same question this week: where were you when the 2003 Canberra firestorm hit?

It’s not like we want to remember, more that we can’t forget.

It would be impossible to forget that sky. How it changed from blueish to orange to the most evil black in what seemed like minutes. How the wind came up from nowhere. How people’s faces changed from basic curiosity to outright fear – to panic.

A group of us were at a friend’s birthday party in what was then the new part of town – one of the outlying Gungahlin suburbs.

It was like a kids’ party, with lots of bad (read good) food like fairy bread, pink cakes with icing made to a rich dentist’s favourite recipe. I think there was even GI lime cordial.

READ ALSO Canberra bushfire memories still fresh 20 years on

One of my most graphic memories was how the fairy bread, the intricately shaped pieces of white bread carpeted with hundreds and thousands of sprinkles, started to curl up at the edges within, it seemed, just a matter of minutes. It was on a table with all the other party fare, but looked more like it was under attack. Like the rest of us started to feel.

Something wasn’t right. I remember all the windows being open and someone getting up to close them when this thick, hot, stinky air came flooding through. I also remember all looking at each other, not knowing what was wrong but knowing something really was

Many of us at the party were journalists, working on a Canberra newspaper, and rostered on for work at Fyshwick that afternoon at around 3 pm.

I said my goodbyes and started the drive across town. The eerieness of that afternoon has never left me. I constantly had to readjust my head/brain to stay on the road, to look ahead, not up, to roll down the windows or roll them back up again because I could never quite work out the science/common sense behind the air circulation thingy.

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

At the office, one of my colleagues was at the staff entrance having his last cigarette before starting his shift. We both watched, maybe more than we normally would, how his boot squashed the life out of the smoke. Normally he would just leave the butt on the ground. This day he spat on it.

The rest of the shift was a blur. A smoky, smelly, scary blur. Colleagues would come in and out of the office, each time bringing with them the scent of fire. But it was more than a scent. It was a bloody great stink. They reeked of it. Their clothes reeked of it. Those of us who had to stay inside and work on their copy, without going anywhere near a fireground, reeked of it.

I also remember their faces as they came back into the office. Their blank, dirty faces. They, like the rest of us, had never seen or heard anything like it.

Canberra bushfires aftermath

All that was left after the 2003 Canberra fires, a blackened, charred city questioning how something like this could ever happen. Photo: Rural Fire Service.

Four people dead, 488 homes gone. God knows how many animals destroyed, burnt to death. How could that be? In such a smart capital like Canberra where these things aren’t supposed to happen.

We only get on the national news when they refer to Federal Parliament as “Canberra”. And although we didn’t like it that way, we lived with it.

Yet the pictures taken that day told a story as did the thousands of words that accompanied them in Sunday’s newspapers.

My best/worst memory is of one of my colleagues coming into the office apologising for being so late for his shift. He was filthy, but had thought it best to come straight to work – after spending three hours on the roof of his neighbour’s house fighting off flames. He went to his neighbour’s aid after coming home to find his Chapman house burnt to the ground. The neighbour’s house was saved, pretty much thanks to him. (He didn’t tell us, we only found out later).

Despite calls by his colleagues for him to go and rest, at least go and clean up, no-one, from memory, thankfully, suggested he go “home”.

He like everyone else in the office, stayed till stumps, putting out a newspaper headlined, Our Darkest Day.

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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, both a sad but humorous moment for those watching.

You have a wonderful heart, Sally. Our strongest memories of the day, apart from the pain of losing a home, were the many acts of kindness – emotional, physical, financial – that we received from friends and strangers in Canberra, and beyond.
But Canberra had been a community before that. A relative of ours was the manager of the Capitol Theatre in Manuka in the 70’s. On Saturday nights, when everyone would come to see the film, she and her friends would sit at the back checking out the backs of heads, to see who was missing and wondering if they were o’k.

Stephen Saunders8:32 pm 22 Jan 23

Even 20 years later, it makes not the slightest difference. After the 2020-22 fire, flood, and pandemic, the LibLab politicians’ response is crystal clear. Record levels of mass migration.

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