CHRISTMAS 2001 - The A.C.T. Bushfires

At around the same time that many parts of the N.S.W. Hunter, Metropolitan and Illawarra were going into high flammability, so too was the A.C.T. Region. We knew that the risk of a serious fire was steadily increasing, and we were watching what was happening in NSW. On the morning of Xmas Eve, the weather forecast was: temperature 28oC, relative humidity 16%, W to NW Winds at 40km/hr, gusting to 50km/hr.

A fire started just east of the Canberra Airport in the late morning. It was caused by a youth playing with fireworks.

The Uriarra Road leads down to the Murrumbidgee River from town. On the north is the grazing land of the valley of the Molonglo River; on the south is the scenic Mount Stromlo.

At 13:31 three of our four fire towers reported a smoke plume from the northwest corner of the pines in the vicinity of the “Huntly’ Property on the Uriarra Road. This was called the Huntly fire. At 13:36 a second smoke plume was reported at “Kallenia Rivers”, on Coppins Crossing Road, 4.5km downwind from the first. This was called the Coppins Crossing fire. Both were reported to be building rapidly.

The Huntly fire was burning in grassland with scattered trees on a steep upper slope. The grass fire was spreading at faster than walking pace. It crowned in the trees along the roadside. The fire crossed the Uriarra Road and threatened to run towards the Mt Stromlo pine Plantation, the Adventure Paintball Park in its path. Suppression efforts halted the fire and kept this section of the fire to around 12 hectares. Crews were able to stop the main fire just as it reached a series of homesteads and sheds at Spring Vale, and even saved a full hay shed.

The fire burnt out 64 hectares and was stopped 130 metres short of the pine plantation on Mount Stromlo. It took many days to reopen the Uriarra Road, due to the danger from falling trees - chainsaw operators were in high demand.

The Coppins Crossing fire spread rapidly in grazing land down to the Molonglo River. Before crews could round it up, it crossed the River and started an uphill run in the Greenhills pine plantation. With a mix of slash, young pines and mature pines, the fire behaviour was variable - but always spectacular.

At this point, with the fire spotting up to 300 metres, it was obvious that we were not going to stop this fire in a hurry. It threatened the edges of five Canberra suburbs — Duffy, Holder, Weston, Yarralumla and Curtin. The Emergency Services Bureau issued the SEWS (the Standard Emergency Warning Signal) alert to the community for the first time, along with advice to the residents of those suburbs to take certain steps to increase their safety.

The fire crossed the main north-south road in Canberra (Tuggeranong Parkway) and burnt down to the shores of Lake Burley Griffin. It entered the grounds of both the National Zoo & Aquarium and the Governor-General's residence.

The Parkway road and many others in the area would remain closed for many days, again due to the threat from falling trees.

The fire veered a little to the right and burnt right to the edge of the suburb of Curtin, and in fact to within 800m of the Emergency Services Bureau. Around here it threatened Forest Park Riding School, Two Sisters Motel, the Yarralumla Woolshed, the Joint Services Staff College, the RSPCA and a number of sites on Heritage Lists.

This fire destroyed millions of dollars of plantation pines, and eventually burnt out many hectares. In its last run it crossed another of our main arterial roads, Adelaide Avenue, and was pulled up next to the Royal Australian Mint.

The exact area of this fire will never be known because it was overrun by a third fire, which was lit deliberately upwind at 14:56. This fire (the Blewitts Fire) was lit in very heavy pine slash 1.5km upwind. In such heavy fuels (up to 150 tonnes per hectare) it burnt ferociously and could not be approached. Even though burning downslope, the wind was sufficient to quickly whip it into a spreading fire. Later a pipe bomb was defused, by the Police Bomb Squad, near where this fire reached the crews working on the Coppins Crossing fire.

The two fires merged and became the Stromlo Fire. The Stromlo Fire burnt a total of over 1200 hectares which included around 500 hectares of pine plantation and a plantation of Roman Cypress trees.

At 16:00, just after a fire tower reported winds at 90km/hr, we had a fire reported at the foot of Red Hill. This Nature Park is just south of the Lake Burly Griffith, borders many embassies and is surrounded by suburbs. It was also downwind of the other three fires. This fire quickly raced uphill and crowned. This forced the evacuation of the Red Hill Carousel Restaurant which remained closed for several days.

It eventually burnt 170 hectares while switching between uphill and downhill runs, often as a crown fire.

At the same time that the Red Hill fire was reported, another fire was reported on Bruce Ridge next to the Australian Institute of Sport. This fire was also in Nature Park, in Scribbly Gum and Stringybark woodland, and rapidly became a crown fire. It was 5km upwind of the heart of Canberra and added another large smoke plume to the urban landscape. A youth hostel in Dryandra Street was evacuated. In all 100 hectares of this park was burned.

On Christmas Day around 11.00am a fire was lit on Canberra Avenue opposite HMAS Harman and burnt towards Oaks Estate, which is an outer suburb of Canberra, just across the railway line from Queanbeyan. It burnt 100 hectares and was stopped from entering an industrial estate and from jumping the railway line.

At 2.30pm a fire was lit on Wanniassa Hills above the southern suburb of McArthur. It was rounded up just before reaching houses, and was small at 17 hectares. There were many other smaller fires like the 10 hectare fire that burnt into the grounds at the Canberra University.

By 9 am on Boxing Day the Country Fire Authority had an advance incident management team working with our incident control team in Curtin, and by 3.30 pm that day, some 56 volunteers with 10 tankers were deployed to the Stromlo fire. Late on Thursday, these CFA crews were released and departed to assist NSW.

Helicopters proved invaluable at all of the fires. It was so easy for fires to crown that it was consistently difficult for direct attack to succeed. We did no backburning. This was partly because there was often no room for one to work, and partly because with the strong winds there was little margin for error. The fact that the winds held on WNW for so long made suppression easy for us. Had there been significant wind swings or major fronts come through we would have struggled to achieve what we did.

From around lunchtime Christmas Eve to 8.00pm Christmas Day, apart from the 5 major fires, there were another 33 fires responded to. All up over 1600 hectares were burnt with over 50km of fire perimeters to patrol, and for up to 3 weeks afterwards smoke could been seen rising from the fire grounds. But we lost no-one, had few injuries, and lost no structures (apart from some minor rural ones).

As with our N.S.W. and Victorian colleagues hundreds of our volunteers and paid staff missed Christmas. About 615 people from the A.C.T., N.S.W. and Victoria were involved in fighting the bushfires in the A.C.T., of these, 397 were volunteers.