The 2003 fires burnt for six hours when the fire danger rating was 'Extreme' and peaked briefly at an index of 104. These fire danger conditions occur when there is a combination of long-term drought, and a synoptic situation that brings hot dry air from the centre of the continent over the ACT with strong dry winds. Extreme fire danger conditions when the FDI exceeds 50 occur, on average, two to three times every summer. Multiple fires burning under extreme conditions that have burnt across large areas of southeast New South Wales have occurred seven times in the last century.
On most occasions when there are no fire outbreaks, extreme fire danger days pass almost without the general public noticing - just another unpleasant hot windy day. However, it is these days that the volunteer firefighters have to plan and prepare for. They have to be ready for very rapid initial attack because even on extreme days some fires can be suppressed when they are small and have not built up to their full potential. Once they have escaped initial attack, however, there is virtually nothing that can be done to stop the head of the fire. Grass fires in open country can be attacked on the back flank and firefighters focus on the eastern flank preparing for the inevitable wind change towards the south. In forests, even the back of the fire can be too dangerous to approach. On large fires, such as experienced in 2003, firefighters can only focus on the protection of individual properties until conditions abate.
Only a few firefighters have experienced conditions like these more than once in their careers. In ten years time most firefighters will have never experienced anything like this. I trust that the images in this book will serve not only as a tribute to the firefighters who worked desperately to protect life and property but also as a training aid for firefighters in the future. These conditions will occur again and firefighters have to be prepared. While we cannot stop these fires, if we understand how fires behave under these conditions and learn from the lessons of the past, we can reduce the damage and the losses in the future.
N P Cheney
Last updated 4 November 2014