The Firestorm Which Failed To Dim The Red Lights of Canberra

By Mike Welsh

circleOn the 12th anniversary of the ferocious firestorm which abruptly roared through Canberra’s South, I’m hoping sufficient  time has elapsed to look at the poignant and lighter side of the events of that extraordinary and unforgettable  day.  A day when 504 homes were destroyed and 4 people lost their lives.

Just after midday on Saturday Jan 18, 2003 (with the local ABC still broadcasting tennis from Melbourne) my radio station 2CC had already been on maximum alert for six hours. The official warning “siren” sound effect broadcast in the event of a disaster had been wailing since early morning.  Many of we radio “old hands” had never heard this sound effect before.  All available staff and many volunteers had enthusiastically clocked on to cover what, at the time was considered no more than a bushfire, posing a serious threat to parts of the Bush Capital.

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Canberra, which had been casually alert for most of the past 10 days was now about to become extremely alarmed.

I was tossed a set of car keys and told to get to a press conference at which it was anticipated a state of emergency would be declared.

Having landed in Canberra just two weeks earlier and having no clue as to the direction I should head, I made an executive decision and commandeered a junior journo to ride shotgun with me to Emergency Services Bureau HQ in Curtin.

It wasn’t until we had left Northbourne Ave and were crossing Commonwealth Ave Bridge that Junior Journo sheepishly confessed to being just as clueless as I.

He’d lobbed in town from Wagga Wagga just 3 weeks earlier. We continued to drive and miraculously stumbled upon Curtin.

Our day and that of tens of thousands of Canberrans was about to become surreal.

Hastily arranged, in no particular pecking order, at a long, narrow conference room table alongside Canberra based network “superstars”, we waited. (Laurie Oakes and Paul Bongiorno, in summer weekend attire of shorts, floral shirts and Dr Scholls sandals is a rare sight to behold)

With choppers hovering overhead dousing the embers which had begun to fall on the roof, a trio of slightly agitated and confused men, AFP Chief, ACT Fire Chief and ACT Chief Minister  Jon Stanhope, was huddled together.

From just centimetres away it was clear from the animated but whispered conversation that possibly there were just a few too many “chiefs” with no clear format for declaring a State of Emergency.

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The Roof of the ESB in Curtin

State of Emergency eventually but inelegantly declared, we headed  into the heart of the fire, only to be stopped by police and funnelled with scores of vehicles fleeing the destruction into the car park of a large shopping mall.

We spent the next 2 hours among a large and ever-growing group of people who had been ordered to evacuate their homes and suburbs or be arrested.

Their shocked and defeated body language was on display for all to see, people alighted vehicles which had been hastily jammed with their worldly possessions: suitcases, picture frames and pets. Many had had less than 10 minutes to evacuate. Some already knew they had no home to return to. Others just hoped and prayed. Being a journalist on a day like this was very difficult.

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An eerie darkness fell over the south of Canberra just after 3 accompanied by a bright orange ring around the horizon and the frightening tornado like sound of what was a ferocious fire storm ravaging over 500 family homes nearby. With no mobile coverage we could no longer report back to 2CC in the Northern suburb of Mitchell where the sun was shining brightly.

Back in Mitchell on air that night I took a call from the BBC. Londoners were waking to the far-fetched news that the Capital city of Australia had been totally destroyed by fire. The BBC man was surprised we were still able to broadcast and needed some convincing that Canberra had not been completely obliterated.

We took hundreds of calls to air that night, including one from an eccentric elderly lady who had been forced into a makeshift emergency shelter for the night. Like many she only had time to pack one large bag of her belongings before being ordered to leave her home.  At the shelter some “low bastard” she told me had stolen her lippy and several wigs from her stash of possessions.

A stoic campaigner she appreciated the humour in my comment about “someone pulling the RUGS out from under her” at such a stressful time.

Another pig-headed open line caller refused to grasp the grim reality that the city was essentially locked down and cut in half. Her boyfriend, a methadone patient, was “climbing the walls” because his local clinic had closed. She demanded I get her man his Methadone.

But the most significant aspect of the long day of disaster was the obvious resilience of Canberra’s famously ordered sex industry

At midnight, with the charred remains of over 500 homes still glowing in the South, four people dead and scores of injuries, the Red Light district of Mitchell in the North still bore its distinct crimson glow.

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