Today is the 10th anniversary of the Canberra Firestorm.

On Saturday 18th January 2003 a freak and devastating firestorm tore through our city.
4 people died and over 500 homes were destroyed.
It resulted in the 2nd largest single hospital disaster response in Australian history.
I was working that day.
2 days later I wrote this story.


the firestorm.

It was bloody horribly awesome. Peeking out of the small window in the resuscitation room, it seemed the world had been dipped in a bucket of hell.
Gale force winds whipped at trees beneath a swirling black sky.
Pressing my face against the glass I could see over towards Weston Creek. Dark shapes lit by a dark crimson glow. Even as I watched the glow became an ominous bright orange, white firefly specks spraying up. My sister’s house was down there somewhere.

Just 2 hours previous it had been a relatively peaceful afternoon at work. I had even snuck down to the helipad to take a few pictures of the Southcare helicopter landing.

It was a hot day and the haze of white smoke from a week of distant bushfires hung in the air and covered our cars with a fine layer of talc.

At lunchtime the wind had picked up and the smoke turned from an annoying grey white smudge to a syrupy purple-brown cancer.
Morning staff had just handed over and left for home when the sun went out.

A 1659 hrs a standby Code Brown (hospital disaster response) was activated.

We began calling in extra staff in anticipation of a serious situation developing. This proved difficult as the both the land-line and mobile networks were either over congested or not working. Many of the staff in the department had family and homes in areas that were threatened, and had to make some very difficult decisions. To stay with the ED team or return home. There were no easy answers.
Meanwhile, all the existing patients in the department were transferred to the wards or discharged home in preparation for incoming victims.
The director of the emergency department juggled phones as he tried to ascertain what was going on ‘out there’. As was to be the case throughout the disaster, communication was a real problem, and the only way we had any idea of the magnitude of what was unfolding, was from the paramedics and public that presented.

It has been well documented that during a disaster the bulk (and often, the most critically injured) of patients will arrive by their own means and not by ambulance, and that is exactly what happened.

Cars began arriving and quickly clogged the ambulance bay. At first it was mostly smoke inhalation, asthma attacks and other respiratory related problems. Then falls from ladders and burns to the hands and feet. (The most serious burn patients all arrived by private car)

Shortly after the Code Brown was activated the shit hit the fan. Things began happening so quickly that time seemed to have unraveled into a syrupy slow motion. The almost surreal nature of the situation was enhanced by the thick smoke that had filled the department and the persistent power surges that would stutter us into darkness and then flicker on as the emergency generators cut in and out.
One of the paramedics walked wide-eyed and pale down the corridor.. as he passed, all he said was “I was shit scared out there.”

Tragically, two females with dreadful burns arrived in the back of a ute. They were rushed into the resuscitation room where the trauma team pounced on them.
Another arrived almost simultaneously. She had been in her stationary car when a tornado generated by the firestorm blew it over she was thrown through the window sustaining serious injuries.
A fire-fighter was dragged in semi-conscious and combative from smoke inhalation and severe airway burns…. all he wanted to do was to get back to help his mates.
He wasn’t going anywhere.

Due to the power failure all the fire doors closed making access to other areas of the hospital difficult. Our computer system crashed and we lost power to the radiology department rendering the CAT scan inoperable, and leaving us with only mobile x-ray equipment for some time.
The main disaster control center for the hospital was having major communication problems.

The department quickly filled with a sea of sick, burned and broken people.
Medical teams were crowded around the 3 beds in resus each occupied by a critically ill patient.
Generally, working in the resuscitation room is nothing like you see portrayed on TV. There is no shouting out streams of orders or rushing around dramatically defibrillating folk. Most of the time we all know what needs to be done, and we all get on with it with a calm surgical professionalism.

But tonight there was a noisy, edgy urgency to the room. It was hot and smoky and difficult to breathe. We had no idea what was going to happen next and we were all dreading the arrival of more seriously burned people.
At one stage the backup generators failed, draining the room of the intensive care specialists as they sprinted up to ICU to help ventilate their patients by hand.

I was designated to a team of medical staff caring for a patient with severe burns. This person was conscious and talking when they arrived. Most of her clothes had been burnt away revealing the leathery yellow-white skin of full thickness burns.
She lay there looking up with terrified eyes. So you touch her and you tell her that everything will be OK (and you know that it will not), and you put her to sleep, and you place her on life support, and you all work your butts off to give her the best chance that you can.

I guess the only positive thing you can say about an incident like this is that it brings out the best in people. And a team of amazing people arrived to support and augment the department. From social workers, chaplains and ex-ED staff who turned up to volunteer their services, to patients and relatives who became caregivers themselves.  All were absorbed into the charcoal faced crowd.

Many of the public who presented with ‘minor’ injuries had just lost everything. Many were almost apologetic not wanting to “waste our time”, and sat in small whispering groups or just sat in stunned confusion.
The waiting room was packed full. Nobody complained.
That day we treated over 270 patients 45 of whom were admitted. The next day we would see 198 with 33 admissions.

Not a single member of the department would be untouched by the tragedy.  Some lost their houses, many had friends and family who lost everything. My sister’s house had burned to the ground. She escaped with only the clothes she was wearing, and her pets.
At last count over five hundred homes have been counted as completely lost.

However…the following days would prove that the most important things in life are surely non-flammable.

6 Responses to “2003 Canberra Firestorm remembered.”

  1. I cared for the lady who was thrown from her stationary car when she returned to our regional hospital. Assisting her with showers as a physiotherapist had a significant influence on my decision to study nursing as a mature age student. That and the machines that go ping. She never made it to Perth to meet her new great-granddaughter (she was staying with a friend in Canberra the day before her flight) but she did get to return home to live independently and lived another 5 years.

  2. Thankyou all for sharing your stories. Can’t say anymore that that.

  3. I remember that day..I was on Night Shift and for some reason woke up at 1400 to complete darkness. I was home alone as my husband had gone to the Coast. So here I was scared of heights up on The Roof Plugging up the Gutters and filling them with water all the while watching the fire creep over the Hills. I was getting ready to leave at a moments notice and my husband was trying to keep me calm as the previous year we had been evacuated in Sydney at minight on Xmas Day and had nothing more than our clothes hastily thrown over our PJ”s..and Panic was setting in !! Here I was trying to figure out how to get my wedding dress in the car….while all these other people were suffering..and my neighbour was concerned that she wouldn’t be able to get to work !!! Danyka what you and your family went through and are still going through makes my fear and panic nothing and as a nurse I thank you for your comments and believe me your sister was fortunate to have one of the most experienced, kind,caring Nurses looking after her that day and Ian would say he was” Just doing his Job”.

  4. Those two “seriously burned ladies” were my mother and sister.

    ESA couldn’t get ambulances, air evacuation or foot soldiers in to get them out of that equestrian centre, where “the air was on fire”.

    By some spear of fate, at the equestrian centre there was an ex-nurse who drove them in in the back of her vehicle (the ute in question), understanding the severity of their injuries at that initial moment.

    She had somehow had the wherewithal to fill up bottles of water which she gave to them, instructing them to “sip, pour it over yourselves, and keep talking to me…” as she drove them to the emergency room at Canberra Hospital.

    They walked into the emergency room. I know this only because I saw footage on ABC a few weeks later: some shaky, phone-filmed memory. I saw my sister walking from behind, t-shirt gone, hair matted, skin bubbled yellow and black, teetering in that unsteady, shock-ridden gait. She would not walk again for several months.

    I didn’t see them on their initial admission into Canberra hospital. I saw them 24 hours later – after they were flown to Sydney where they would stay in Concord Hospital, for the year-long hospitalisation that began the exhaustive and emotionally wrenching road ‘home’.

    I can only imagine what kind of mettle it takes to be nurse. I saw more horror in that year than I ever imagined I would or should.
    That first moment I saw them after the initial injury still haunts me. Blistered, skin surgically and strategically sliced to prevent rupturing from the intense swelling from the body’s reaction to burns. Half bandaged, stinking of salt, sweat, antiseptic and scorched flesh. My 20-year old sister and my mother had become two great swollen mounds of fluid and dressings and blistered flesh, unrecognisable except only by their teeth and nostrils.

    Irreconcilable with the image of the people I knew and loved.

    Somehow, the four of us (mother, sister, father and I) made it here, to January 18th, 2013.

    Anything I say couldn’t possibly express the gratitude I owe to the people who helped us on that black day in 2003, and the tumultuous years following.
    I was myself hospitalised some years after with my own various mental health issues (not in the least, PTSD related to the events of 2003).

    So I suppose a great deal of my thanks goes to those numerous nurses. Who have been with us at so many points along the way, even from those first critical minutes. Those teeth-gritting, tear-jerking, stubbornly good-to-the-bone nurses. They are the people who give care even when the giving seems cruel.

    I can’t thank you enough, as it’s quite likely you held my sister or my mother in your hands that day.

  5. I cannot imagine what it was like to be at work in ED that day. I was at work on the large horse property in chapman, the same one that the seriously burned ladies came from. My biggest memories from the day are running for my life when the fire storm hit and it was so dark you couldn’t see the fire. The other is the people who made it to shelter 5 mins after me with significant burns. Could have been me in the ED. Thank you to all the emergency service workers that worked so hard that day. It really was appreciated

  6. Yes I remember it. I was lucky to come out without losing my possessions, however many of my friends did not. They lost homes, cars, animals. I’ll never forget the stream of people with horse floats evacuating horses for hours and hours, back and forth.
    I was working at Mawson Woolies at the time, we were the only one open in the area, some due to the fire, some due to power loss. I drove to work at 3pm for my usual 1500-2400 closing shift, and it was black as night, I could barely see the road as I drove in. My mum was home unwell with bronchitis, so I was a bit worried how all this smoke would affect her. I had the radio on, desperately trying to absorb the latest updates, they’d already called for Weston Creek residents to return home.
    The place was packed with panicked people buying bottled water, torches, batteries mostly. You couldn’t move, there were so many. Half our staff also lived in Weston Creek so had to go home, as I relayed the latest updates to them. The atmosphere was thick with panic. Nothing like the ED I’m sure, but you could feel it everywhere. We watched Mt Taylor burning, and desperately tried to get a radio signal so we knew what was going on. I heard a dear friend on ABC radio ( interviewed from the ED) telling how she’d lost her house, car and beloved cat in Chapman. I struggled to keep it together after that.
    When our power finally failed, about 6 or 7pm from memory, we got abused. People were screaming at us because they couldn’t buy their precious water, until our duty manager (whose voice you had to hear to understand how big it naturally was) stood at the door and yelled out “our houses are burning down too” and there was a stunned silence. We rushed around packing covers over the perishable goods in a vain hope of saving some of it, packed up and went home. I watched the firestorm all night, it was so close, the smoke was think everywhere. We managed to get a message out to one of my Aunties in NSW to tell them we were ok, but then the phone networks failed and that was it.
    I don’t live in Canberra now, but the memories of that night are etched into my brain for eternity. I can’t even being to imagine the memories of those who lost everything on that day.

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