Canberra Bushfires

Canberra Bushfires HelicopterThe Canberra bushfires burnt into the Australian Capital, Canberra, on the 18th of January 2003, however the bushfires began on January the 8th due to lightning in rural and forested areas.

Visit our Canberra Bushfire Photos page for pictures of the 2003 Canberra bushfires

On the 8th of January 2003, 3 bushfires were reported as a result of lightning, with another 74 reported in the neighbouring state of New South Wales.

By the 18th of January, two large fires were still burning and uncontained in the Namadgi National Park, with a third fire threatening to break containment lines in the Brindabella Ranges. All three fires were to the west of Canberra and had been moving east towards the outskirts of the Australian capital the previous day.

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Temperatures for the 18th were recorded at 40 degrees celcius, with winds in excess of 60km per hour.

At 9am on the 18th, residents living in the western suburbs of Canberra started reporting burnt leaves landing around their homes, by 2pm police had evacuated the suburb of Tharwa.

Canberra bushfires pine plantationAt 2.45pm a state of emergency was declared by the ACT’s Chief Minister and within 15 minutes the fires reached urban areas, in less than an hour the first reports of homes on fire were coming in from fire crews.

Within 10 hours 4 people died, 490 were injured and over 500 homes destroyed.

A large number of suburbs lost power due to the fires and high winds, many suburbs were also without communications and water.

The following day, on the 19th of January, the Mt Stromlo Observatory was destroyed. The observatory was not only a highly active observatory, it was also historically significant on a national level.

In total the fires burnt 164,000 hectares, which was close to 70% of the Territories total area.

Homes burnt during Canberra bushfiresResearchers later stated that during the Canberra bushfires, there was the first confirmed case of a fire tornado. The tornado was a direct result of the weather conditions created by the Canberra bushfires, it was 500m wide, winds exceeded 150km an hour and it travelled over 30 km. The fire tornado was consistent with an F2 rating.

The inquiry following the Canberra Bushfires found that:

  • If the fires were more aggressively fought within the first 24 hours of January the 8th, then they might have been contained. Once they had grow to a certain size they then became extremely difficult to fight due to the drought conditions.
  • Access to some areas and the management of fuel loads in nature reserves and parks was not sufficient
  • Fire fighters and emergency service crews were overwhelmed by the unexpected speed and intensity of the fires on the 18th of January
  • A comprehensive ACT Emergency Plan was in place at the time of the fire; it worked, particularly in recovery after the fires, in dealing with the large number of people who needed temporary shelter and assistance as a consequence of the fires.
  • The Emergency Services Bureau centre was unable to handle the large amount of data and communications traffic efficiently at the height of the crisis.
  • There were some equipment and resourcing deficiencies within the ACT’s emergency service organisations.
  • Information and advice for the community about the fire situation was inadequate.
  • There should be an increased emphasis on hazard reduction burning for fuel-reduction.