Don's diary: canberra's blazing black saturday

February 14, 2003

Very hot today - more than 35C. Half the Australian National University loses electricity due to fire damage in the Namadgi national park. The smoke haze from distant bushfires, which has lingered all week, gives magnificent blood-red sunsets, but irritates the lungs on the cycle ride home. My weekend is to be devoted to considering career options - stay in Australia, return to London or seek new opportunities elsewhere?

Melting hot again. Head for lunch in air-conditioned mall. Flee shopping centre after the radio station warns residents of many suburbs to prepare for bushfires. It is as black as night at 4pm on a summer afternoon as we emerge from the car park. The roads, unusually for Canberra, are busy. Chief minister of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) has declared a state of emergency and handed over control to the chief police and fire officers. Canberra is ablaze. No real threat to us, apparently, but we pack up clothes, toothbrushes and hundreds of nappies for the baby. No electricity so we turn in anxiously and early.

The city is in shock. More than 400 houses have been destroyed and at least three people are dead. The city's 12 fire crews had no chance of coping. The fire burnt itself out in half-a-dozen suburbs southwest of us.

ANU's Stromlo Observatory, a key astronomical facility for the Southern hemisphere, has been completely destroyed. The vice-chancellor and prime minister visit and promise it will be rebuilt. The v-c promptly puts out a compassionate email expressing relief that ANU's most precious assets (its staff and students) have been saved. He offers sympathy and financial assistance for the many university staff (including two in my research school) who have lost homes. The spirit of generosity is striking throughout the city. Too anxious to work well and join family for the afternoon in the cool of another mall.

University empties at lunchtime as dozens of northern suburbs are put on high alert for a new fire threat. Tomorrow's papers will carry images of householders standing on their roofs with hoses awaiting a conflagration, which never comes.

Australia Day. Anxiety continues as bushfires blaze within 10km of the northern suburbs and temperatures of 37C-40C are forecast. This time the authorities are prepared, but lighter than expected winds keep the fires away.

Raining this morning. I have never been so glad to get wet.

State of emergency to be lifted. More than half the ACT has been burnt out.

Black Saturday, January 18, reported to be the single most destructive day of bushfires in Australian history. Canberrans' proud claim that the city does have a soul after all reminds me of the satirical comment after September 11: "The rest of US loves New York City - briefly." Much speculation that the extraordinary sense of community engendered by the fires will make for a happier city in the medium term, but I have decided to return permanently to the London School of Economics in August.

Colin Scott is on a two-year secondment from the Economic and Social Research Council Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation, and the law department, London School of Economics, to the Law Program and Regulatory Institutions Network at the Australian National University.

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