Friday, February 20, 2015

The Mystique of the 2003 Canberra Bushfires, Part 1

The Mystique of the 2003 Canberra Bushfires, Part 1

By Satsuki Ranjou
Spirit News
November 23, 2073

The 2003 Canberra bushfires involved several deaths, over 490 injured, and caused severe damage to the outskirts of Canberra, the Australian capital city, during 18–22 January 2003. Almost 70% of the Australian Capital Territory's (ACT) pastures, forests (pine plantations), and nature parks were severely damaged, and most of the renowned Mount Stromlo Observatory was destroyed. After burning for a week around the edges of the ACT, the fires entered the suburbs of Canberra on 18 January 2003. Over the next ten hours, four people died and more than 500 homes were destroyed or severely damaged, requiring a significant relief and reconstruction effort.

By the evening of 19 January, it was clear that the worst-hit suburb was Duffy, where 200+ residences were destroyed, and that four people had died: Alison Tener, 38, Peter Brooke, 74, and Douglas Fraser, 60, and Dorothy McGrath, 76, of the Mount Stromlo Forestry Settlement. The loss of life, damage to property, and destruction of forests to the west of the city caused not just economic loss but significant social impacts. Many people were affected by depression, particularly those who had lost their homes in the fires. The community questioned the lack of preparation for the fires and the total confusion at the time.

In the weeks after 18 January, the impact of the fires was studied in detail to determine how the damage had been done, and how to better work against such natural disasters in future. The Cities Project compiled information on as many as 431 damaged properties, stratified into the groups of "destroyed", "heavy damage", "medium damage", "light damage", and "superficial damage". This data was split by suburb to form a table which illustrated which areas had taken the most damage. The data allowed them to conclude that the high levels of "destroyed" property (91%) indicated the high speed with which the fire had moved. It was also concluded that once the establishments had caught fire, there was little chance of their being put out. In addition, the study showed that it was not only the fire which caused damage, but also the fierce winds recorded on the day, which were strong enough to uproot some small trees. It is believed that with the aid of this information, better policies and regulations have been formulated, which may help to reduce the destruction by future bushfires in Canberra, as well as in other locales.

Bushfires severely harmed the vegetation of the Cotter River Catchment and caused water quality problems in the three dams in the catchment: Corin, Bendora and Cotter Dams. For quite some time after the fires, turbidity in the water due to silt and ash from surrounding burnt-out forests meant Canberra had to rely on Googong Dam on the Queanbeyan River, which was not affected by the fires. Given the drought and existing water shortages, this effectively reduced Canberra's water reserves to around 15% for some time. An upgrade to the Stromlo Water Treatment Plant was subsequently required to allow extra filtration of water to cope with the diminished quality in the future.

As with any bushfire, the environment will take significant time to regenerate. Regeneration of vegetation was delayed by an ongoing drought in the region.