Twenty years from the day Canberra ‘lost its innocence’

It has been 20 years since a bushfire tore through the suburbs of the national capital, taking residents and authorities by surprise. The event changed the way fires are responded to in the ACT, but the question still lingers — could it happen again?

‘Survival was our instinct’

Despite a soaring temperature, for lots of Canberrans, the morning of January 18, 2003, seemed like the beginning of an ordinary summer day.

While most residents of the national capital were aware of a fire burning in the Namadgi National Park to the city’s west, many went about their Saturday with little concern.

As it was still the middle of school holidays, hoards of Canberrans made the typical pilgrimage to the New South Wales South Coast, hoping to cool off at the beach.

The view to the south of Canberra on the evening before the firestorm struck.()

Meanwhile, an out-of-control fire was headed for Canberra’s western suburbs, moving much faster than authorities had anticipated.

By the end of the day, four people would be dead, many more injured, and about 500 homes would be destroyed.

Wide of Ballineen homestead with fire coming down behind- 2003
On January 17, spot fires were surrounding Ballineen homestead, nestled in the Namadgi National Park.()

Residents of the “bush capital” have always favoured the city for its easy access to nature, and, in 2003, many suburbs in Canberra’s west were nestled against pine forests.

As was the case for the Buckman family home, in the suburb of Holder.

On this day 20 years ago, the family was getting ready for the upcoming christening of one of their children.

Fran Buckman remembers they all went to get haircuts.

“We got home, it was quite warm — our friends took the boys for a swim,” she says.

“I remember it just got darker, and then we had family calling and saying, ‘Do you want us to come across? The fires are getting close’ and we’re going, ‘Oh, we’re fine’.”

Meanwhile, an unstoppable firestorm was headed their way.


The blaze had been sparked by a lightning strike in the Brindabella Ranges on January 8 and initially developed slowly.

Over 10 days, four fires snaked their way through the inaccessible valleys and slopes of Namadgi National Park.

But on January 18, catastrophic fire conditions whipped the blaze into an overwhelming force of nature.

The fires combined, creating a wall of flames 30 kilometres wide.

The rural firefighters, park rangers and an aerial fleet of water bombers that had been battling the blaze in the bush had no choice but to pull back to safety.

Authorities were caught off-guard and, even as the flames bore down, were telling the media that people should not be “unduly alarmed”.

Only those who were facing the flames realised the enormity of what was happening.


About 1pm, firefighter Shawn McIntyre and his unit were dispatched to the suburb of Duffy, which the fire was expected to reach in about two hours.

Instead, it roared uphill and arrived in 30 minutes.

Darkness descended, obliterating the blue skies that had been vivid that morning.

“When we arrived on Warragamba Avenue it was like a black blizzard, complete darkness,” Mr McIntyre said.

“Flashes of red, we could see the pines behind where we were standing, flames leaping five to 10 metres above those and across the road.

“At that stage, survival was our instinct and we had to retreat to a safer point a couple of streets back.”

Firefighters were soon overwhelmed as they fought to save properties from the onslaught.

By the time many Canberrans realised what was happening, homes were already alight.


In the middle of the afternoon, Canberra was blanketed by smoke.

Usually busy shopping strips were abandoned — save a few people stocking up on emergency supplies.

Some residents rushed back from their weekend outings to try to save their homes.

But many realised it was far too late to do anything.

Without any official advice to do so, thousands of Canberrans evacuated.

Brian Schmidt, an observational astronomer who would go on to become vice-chancellor of the Australian National University, had been driving to pick up one of his children’s friends in Weston Creek when he was confronted by fire.

“As I started driving in … the sky turned black and it was surreal, it was as black as black can be,” he says.

“The next thing I knew, I looked up and all the houses were on fire directly in front of me.”


At that moment, the robotic telescope that had been installed at his workplace on Mount Stromlo sent him a message stating it was 73C at the facility.

“I knew there was a fire up there at that point … so yeah, that was the last message it ever sent,” he says.

“I knew it would be damaged. I didn’t know how much.”

Gutted telescope at Mt Stromlo
The observatory at Mount Stromlo was gutted, as well as most of the other buildings in the settlement.()

Meanwhile, Fran Buckman and her husband Matt were beginning to realise they were in danger.

“Matt was on the roof but very quickly realised that things were pretty bad when he saw the helicopters coming in,” she says.

“He’s a very quiet man but he came running through the house and said, ‘get the kids, get everybody, and just go’.

“I got to the top of the street and we could see that the two houses up from us were already alight.”

The family made it safely to a friend’s house across the New South Wales border in Jerrabomberra.

But their home was destroyed.


At her home in Duffy, Liz Tilley realised she and her family were in grave danger.

“There was a moment where I was standing in the lounge room and the windows were catching, and it was like snowdrifts of ash across the carpet,” she says.

“And I pulled the heavy drapes down because they were so hot and a couple of them had started to catch.

“I wasn’t even stressed. I just looked around and I thought ‘oh, this is the day that you die’.”

Fire burns a house in Morant Circuit in Kambah - 2003
A home owner and firefighter attempt to save a house in Kambah, in Canberra’s south, about 6pm.()

Instead, she and her family found a moment amid the chaos to evacuate.

But she remembers being horrified as her husband and brother-in-law ran back into the garage before they left.

“They’d gone to get a beer from the beer fridge, because ‘Liz, we’ll need a drink’.”

Later, they would return to find only their door knocker had made it through the blaze unscathed.


By early evening, panic had descended on the city.

Police officers joined residents in an attempt to save properties, stymied by poor water pressure and without any protective clothing.

The city’s fire resources were overwhelmed — 20 fire trucks had been deployed to fight a blaze that required hundreds.

Three of them broke down in the firestorm, with one crew rescued by another.

By about 7pm, a cool change came through and conditions improved.

But hundreds of homes in Canberra suburbs had been lost in the space of an afternoon.

Four people were dead — Alison Tener, 38, Peter Brooke, 74, Douglas Fraser, 60, and Dorothy McGrath, 76.

Others were seriously injured, with burns, broken bones and heart attacks.

Hospitals were inundated with patients struggling to breathe.

A changed city

Chauvel Circle, Chapman, Canberra in January 2003, after the firestorm swept into the suburb on January 18, 2003.
Chauvel Circle in Chapman was badly affected by the firestorm.()

The following day, questions were already being raised about how such an event could occur.

Could properties have been better protected, and could warnings have come sooner?

The ACT’s chief minister, Jon Stanhope, fronted the media, attempting to put into words the enormity of the blaze.

“Perhaps one of the most appalling natural disasters that Australia has ever suffered,” Mr Stanhope said.

He described it as a “once in a one or two-century event”.


Taking in the national park and suburban Canberra, about 70 per cent of the ACT was affected.

Streets were silent and smoky on the following day.

The Mount Stromlo Observatory, along with the other buildings in the settlement, was gutted.

Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve was mostly destroyed.

Park ranger and firefighter Brett McNamara, who lived in the reserve with his family, was unable to save his home.

He says, while the day was horrific, he also vividly remembers what happened afterwards.

“The way the Canberra community opened up their hearts afterwards was truly extraordinary,” he says.

“And to my mind that says a lot about Canberra.”

Brian looks serious, leaning on the windowsill of the rusted shell of Mount Stromlo Observatory.
Australian National University vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt was devastated by the impact of the 2003 bushfire.()

Twenty years on, Professor Schmidt is still emotional about what was lost at Mount Stromlo.

“This is a place of history, it’s a place that was quite unusual for Canberra because it had this history that goes back to 1911,” he says.

He says many people he worked with only just made it out safely.

“The positive thing is that no lives were lost, [but] it was close,” he says.

“We had a visiting student from Quebec who was sleeping, who had observed the night before, and was left behind and had managed to wake up and got a wet blanket and was OK.

“My graduate student was up here … she had a close call because they had 15 minutes to evacuate.

“The fire was like a fluid, it was almost like a wave of water.”

Soul-searching begins

In the months and years that followed, an inquiry into the emergency response to the fires found they might have been stopped had they been attacked more aggressively in the critical first hours.

A coronial inquest was also conducted, which recommended structural changes to the emergency services authority, greater resourcing and better fuel management.

Most significantly, both inquiries were scathing of the lack of official warnings about the real threat to the suburbs.

Jon Stanhope and officials at a press conference in Curtin during the Canberra bushfires.
Then-ACT chief minister Jon Stanhope, ACT chief fire control officer Peter Lucas-Smith and ACT chief police officer John Murray at a press conference following the fire.()

At the time, Mr Stanhope defended senior public servants who came under attack for not preventing the disaster.

“If you want to blame anyone, blame me,” he said.

Now, he says he spoke in anger.

“I said it because the people that I respected, and that worked for me, were being attacked,” he says.

Jon stands looking serious, outside in Canberra where the fires once burned through.
Former ACT chief minister Jon Stanhope says he does not carry guilt over the 2003 Canberra bushfires.()

Two decades on, he says he thinks about the fires often but does not carry any personal guilt.

“I did my best from day one that I became chief minister,” he says.

“In retrospect, you can say, ‘well, you failed, your best wasn’t good enough’, but in hindsight, of course, we could say that about so many aspects of our lives.

“I can understand those that lost a loved one, those that lost their home, thinking, ‘well your best wasn’t good enough’, but it’s all we had to give and we gave it.”

Black Summer triggers two-decade-old memories

The red of the fire and smoke can be seen from the mountains, Canberra in the foreground.
In January 2020, the ACT was once again impacted by a catastrophic fire.()

In 2020, Canberra was again tested, as much of Australia’s east coast erupted in the Black Summer bushfires.

After weeks of being enveloped by smoke from fires in surrounding communities, another blaze started in Namadgi National Park — accidentally sparked by a light on a defence helicopter.

Remembering the events of 2003, many Canberrans in the southern suburbs were on edge, fearing that history would be repeated.

But, having learned some hard lessons from one of Canberra’s darkest days, the ACT government went about reassuring the community — holding a number of meetings and door-knocking residents in vulnerable suburbs to provide them with updates on the fire’s movements and assure them that they would be warned in time to evacuate.

This time the blaze never made it into Canberra’s suburbs.

But several properties were lost in New South Wales when the fire crossed the border.

Once more, though, the fire left charred ruins in its wake.

The blaze consumed a vast amount of Namadgi National Park — even more than in 2003.

A woman with grey hair in an emergency services uniform looks serious.
ACT ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan says she has nothing but respect and gratitude for the territory’s paramedics.()

The Black Summer fires were a stark warning not just to Canberra but to the whole of Australia — fires will become harder and harder to fight due to climate change.

Preparedness, rather than prevention, is now critical for future fires, according to ACT Emergency Services Commissioner Georgeina Whelan.

Asked if she would be comfortable living on Canberra’s western fringe today, Commissioner Whelan said she would, as long as she was a “well-informed resident”.

“The environment that we now live in, in Australia and internationally, is certainly testing us,” she says.

Commissioner Whelan says there could come a day when the ACT has “insufficient resources” for the hazards and the challenges it faces.

“Which is why I regularly do say, come the time of reckoning, we may not be able to put a fire truck at the corner of every street,” she says.

“And so it really is about how we can work together in partnership to prepare ourselves to respond on our worst day.

“We could potentially lose homes from bushfires as equally as the damage we’re incurring from the hail storms and the rain season that we’re experiencing.

“There is always that threat — we are the bush capital.”

Firefighting capabilities have come ‘leaps and bounds’

Despite the warning of more serious bushfire seasons ahead, firefighters also have more tools in their arsenal than they did 20 years ago.

Fire crews working on a burning house in Kambah
Fire crews with a tanker in Kambah on January 18, 2003.()

Artificial intelligence, in particular, is set to play a large role in fighting future fires.

ACT Rural Fire Service Chief Officer Rohan Scott says he hopes the technology could soon be used as a replacement for fire monitoring in towers located around the region.

Typically, the towers must be occupied constantly during fire danger periods, which Mr Scott says is physically taxing for personnel.

“It’s very labour intensive having someone up here,” he says.

“[The new technology] means that we can have a better visual over the ACT on a 24/7 basis, whereas at the moment we can only have people on elevated fire danger days.”

A uniformed Rohan Scott stands by a barbed wire fence.
ACT RFS chief Rohan Scott says the region is in a much better place today to withstand a bushfire.()

He says other advances in technology that many Canberrans would now take for granted, are also helping firefighters manage bushfires.

“We’ve actually noticed too that since mobile phones became more prevalent, our detection and notification from the public is also assisting us in identifying where those fires are,” he said.

“That then allows us to get our resources there quickly, and hopefully the fire can be contained in a very manageable size.”

He says Canberra has progressed “in leaps and bounds” since 2003.

“We’ve got better messaging, we’ve got different levels of advice and we’ve also got the Fire Danger Rating System now, which is a lot easier to manage,” he says.

“We’ve got better resources within the agency, we’ve got better aircraft, better use of intelligence gathering.”


Pine plantations on Canberra’s doorstep helped to ignite homes and ease the path of the fire in 2003, but Mr Scott says that will not happen again.

“[There are] those changes that we’ve made to asset protection zones at edge roads, better building standards, better resources for us,” he says.

“I don’t think we’ll see anything like that to the extreme which we did that day with the house and the life losses, because we’ve improved the way that we do things in the territory.”

He says he is not concerned about the fact that some pine trees are still present on Canberra’s fringes.

“There is, but we’ve got very good management of those,” he says.

“And we’ve actually got good access roads, we’ve got good asset protection, we’ve got standards now that we adhere to and they’re constantly audited and maintained.”

‘Life is too short to stuff around’

For those who were on the ground that day, the vivid memories of the firestorm live on.


ABC newsreader Julian Abbott, who covered the event, says January 18, 2003 was the day Canberra “lost its innocence”.

“It was just the scale of the tragedy,” he says.

“We’ve never had anything like that … up until that day, and thankfully we’ve never had anything like that since.”

Jeremy Lasek, whose home in Chapman burnt down, says the disaster should never be forgotten — to ensure it will never be repeated.

“We should never forget the suffering and the pain and the compassion and the generosity,” he says.

“We can’t let our community be let down like we were that day again.”

Jeremy Lasek and Dorte Ekelund
Dorte Ekelund and Jeremy Lasek at a memorial erected in tribute to those affected by the 2003 fires. They lost their home.()

For his wife, Dorte Ekelund, memories of the fire act as a reminder of how fragile life is.

“We always took the view that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, whereas other people were totally broken by it,” she says.

“The fires broke relationships, some people couldn’t face going back and had to flee Canberra entirely.

“But we sort of brushed ourselves off, absorbed the support that we had around us.”

Shawn smiles, wearing his uniform and standing outside in the sun.
Firefighter Shawn McIntyre tries to focus on the positive things that came out of the disaster.()

At the time, firefighter Shawn McIntyre was left in shock, unable to believe he had survived.

“What happened here 20 years ago was incomprehensible, and even telling the story to people it’s impossible for them to imagine what it was like — to hear that noise, the lack of oxygen in the darkness, in a panic, all of those things,” he says.

Today, he says the memories still come flooding back, but they aren’t all bad, and he is proud of the efforts he made to protect Canberrans.

“I’ve tended to keep away from the more public memorials, myself,” he says.

“I always mark the occasion mentally and that might just take the form of finding somewhere quiet, having a beer and reflecting on the feelings and experiences of that day.

“But importantly, at the end of the day, trying to feel gratitude and appreciation for coming out the other side of it, and what we did achieve, not what we lost.”

Liz smiles a little seriously, standing outside. She has short grey hair and wears a white blazer.
Liz Tilley, 20 years on from the 2003 Canberra fires, says they made her realise how precious life is.()

Liz Tilley says her memories of the day she thought she would perish are still vivid, but she has moved on from what happened.

The Tilley family rebuilt their home and, after some soul-searching in the wake of the fires, Liz has gone on to become a life coach.

“There is something about that moment that I think made me think that life is too short to stuff around,” she says.

“You can make a change.

“Don’t wait until you’re standing in a burning house to go, ‘oh my God, I’ve only got one life and I can’t mess this up’.”


Writer and producer: Niki Burnside

Reporting: Craig Allen and Natalie Larkins

Digital editor: Elise Pianegonda


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