At the mercy of summer terror

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 26 Jan 2003

NOT even the deployment of Australian troops to the Middle East on Friday for the imminent US-led war with Iraq has put everyone in Canberra so intense as they are today. 

As the sun rises this morning, they will look out of the window of their homes – or of their temporary shelters in schools for those who are homeless– and wonder whether it would be another day like last weekend. 

The Weather Bureau has predicted extremely high temperatures and gusty winds to return this weekend, particularly today and tomorrow. 

It is expected to be on the same scale as the one that prompted firestorms to virtually encircle the Australian capital city in what Prime Minister John Howard describes as “the nation facing the war of summer terror.” 

And that is a worry to everyone in Canberra, including the fire fighters, the police, the local authorities and the federal government. 

How much more can the nation endure? 

It lost 88 Australians in the Bali terrorist bombings only three months ago. Its farmers and rural community are suffering hardship and financial disaster as a result of prolonged drought, the worst ever experienced in the country’s history. 

And if the Iraqi war does break out, how many more Australians will lose their lives or be injured? 

Last weekend’s firestorms, reminiscent of the 1967 Hobart great fire that killed 62 people, wiped out almost a third of the national capital, killing four people, seriously injuring 63 others and destroyed 419 homes. 

Most of the fire victims, shocked and distressed at the sight of what was once their dream homes, have lost all their belongings and invaluable mementoes, including medals for military services or sport achievements. 

Ironically, on the eve of the firestorms, some of the city’s prominent people attended a black-tie fundraising dinner for the local fire fighters at the Yale Columbia Telescope Dome in Mt Stromlo Observatory, sipping champagne and watching through the windows the distant bush fires. 

Established in 1924, the observatory’s historic telescopes, including one that was 1.9m, heritage buildings, eight residences and workshops, costing between A$20mil and A$40mil, were gutted the next day when two fires from the north and west converged. 

The inferno, picked up by the speed of the winds at 65kmh, spread rapidly across Canberra’s northern, southern and western suburbs with a pall of smoke hanging over much of the city centre. The city was literally at the mercy of the weather. 

It is a miracle that not many people died or were injured. Unbelievably, there are houses that are almost untouched while properties all around them were burnt to the ground. 

But the inferno stunned the nation because its impact is more serious than one can imagine.  

To put it in perspective, the destruction in Canberra is equivalent to 5,000 homes being destroyed in proportion to a big city like Sydney or Melbourne. 

And so it raises several questions and fingers pointing at various quarters. Have the authorities taken adequate precautions to prevent such a harrowing disaster since an earlier forecast had predicted extreme weather conditions for the city? 

Why were there no early warnings given to the residents to be prepared for what turned out to be a dangerous and explosive scenario? 

Why were the radio stations not told to announce that residents were in grave danger? What happened to all the mobile phones that were suddenly not working? 

Why didn’t the fire services call much earlier for the assistance of firemen from Sydney, only 200km away, to come and help put out the firestorms that threatened the nation’s capital city? 

Were the fire services in Canberra adequately equipped to meet such a contingency? 

There are more questions. But they have to wait until the crisis is over before the issues can be dealt with. To be fair, however, the firestorms are a combination of “freakish conjunction of circumstances, wind velocity, heat and drought,” according to New South Wales Rural Fire Services Commissioner Peter Koperberg. 

“It is of a nature that is perhaps rarely seen or experienced in Australia,” he explains, describing it as one-in-a-century kind of event. “It needs to be understood that once a firestorm has been created, there is nothing that could have stopped it.” 

He believes that an attempt to fight the firestorms would be an exercise in futility although the fire fighters did try to contain the blaze. 

One fire victim comments, somewhat philosophically: “One minute there was nothing and then within 30 seconds all the houses around us were on fire.” 

Australian Capital Territory Chief Minister Jon Stanhope says that the blaze has “simply run over the top of us.” Canberra would have needed about 1,000 fire engines to fight the 35km fire front. 

“We would have required a range of resources that don’t exist anywhere in Australia,” he adds. 

But Stanhope has ordered an investigation into the firestorms. The ACT fire service has only 12 tankers, enough to fight about six house fires at a time, not 400 homes, although there were 500 fire fighters risking their lives in the bush. 

His pledge to prevent similar outbreaks in the future could only mean a change of the current policy that guided Canberra’s urban planners in incorporating the bushes with building developments. 

Such a surrounding, of course, provides a beautiful setting in tranquillity and harmony with nature for the nation’s capital, which has always been one of the main attractions to foreign tourists. 

But its practicability in the Australian weather conditions, particularly in the summer months from December to March of each year, is, perhaps, questionable.  

Overturning the policy, however, will certainly meet strong opposition from many of the 350,000 people in Canberra, especially the conservationists. 

Some solutions will have to be found, though, to provide a balance between continuing the open-bushland policy and the nature’s behaviour in summer. 

For most parts of the year, Canberra, situated in the valley with artificial lakes surrounded by hills, is cool – and cold in winter with temperatures down to as low as -6°C. 

Howard, who describes last week’s situation as the worst property devastation from a bushfire in Australia he has ever seen, calls for calmness in the anger and grief of the residents in pursuit of explanations for what went wrong. 

“Let us legitimately ask some questions and let us have the debate about whether we have the right policies generally to deal with the bushfire threat,” he says. 

“But let it not be couched in terms of finger-pointing. Let us as a community in Canberra and as a nation help the people who need help, and then when that is done and their lives have been rebuilt, we can have an objective and reflective examination and debate.” 

The danger to life and property is likely to continue as long as Australians want to live – in their phraseology – “cheek by jowl” with the bush surrounding in many parts of the country. It is a lifestyle that is admirable, yet risky, in a hot and dry climate in summer that is difficult to comprehend without experiencing it. 


o Jeffrey Francis is editorial consultant, Australasia-Pacific Media (e-mail: 

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