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Worst day of the Canberra bushfire arrives, but the capital is ready

By ABC Canberra staff

Updated

February 01, 2020 10:20:00

The Orroral Valley bushfire in the Namadgi National Park has now burned one eighth of the ACT, but the fire front has been kept away from Canberra and the territory’s rural communities.

Key points:

  • The Orroral Valley fire is currently burning at watch and act level but conditions are expected to worsen dramatically
  • Residents in the village of Tharwa and the suburbs of Banks, Gordon and Conder should be ready to act
  • Sixteen aircraft and ground crews from the ACT, NSW, Queensland and Tasmania are now attacking the blaze

The out-of-control fire was downgraded to watch and act level overnight but is expected to intensify and spread rapidly today.

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr said this week the blaze posed the greatest risk to Canberra since the deadly 2003 bushfires.

Today is expected to be the “worst day”.

“The combination of extreme heat, wind and a dry landscape will place suburbs in Canberra’s south at risk,” Mr Barr said yesterday.

Fire-spread maps predict the blaze could grow up to five times in size, mostly to the east and south-east.

If that happens, it will engulf the New South Wales townships of Michelago and Burra, communities of about 550 and 800 people respectively.

However, the bushfire behaved erratically overnight, spreading in multiple directions.

In a worst-case scenario, it could also sweep through the ACT village of Tharwa and rain embers on Canberra’s southern suburbs.

This morning, ACT Emergency Service Agency (ESA) incident controller Paul Flynn said firefighters’ fears were already being realised.

“We do have spot fires detected several kilometres in front of the main fire and so that’s a pretty bad start to the day.”

Sixteen aircraft are now attacking the blaze, along with ground crews from NSW, Queensland and Tasmania.

The ACT Government said it had taken every step it could to avoid a repeat of the bushfires that devastated the city 17 years ago.

Military personnel have joined ESA staff to doorknock vulnerable residents, extra crews have been flown in from Queensland, and firefighters even managed to do some backburning this week.

Mr Barr declared a state of emergency yesterday, giving the Government powers to direct residents and their livestock, seize control of property and access information.

Horror of 2003 fires in residents’ minds

When fires flared in the Namadgi National Park 17 years ago, few expected it to be as destructive as it was.

The firestorm took hold within 24 hours, and containing it became impossible.

It destroyed about 500 homes across Canberra’s south-western suburbs and in rural communities. Four people died.

This time, residents have been on alert for weeks, preparing their homes for what they fear will be a repeat of the 2003 event.

Mr Barr was keenly aware of this fear when he declared a state of emergency.

“I understand the anxiety that this announcement will cause, especially for those who lived through the 2003 bushfires,” he said.

As in 2003, the surrounding land is extremely dry from years of drought, and the weather is forecast to be hot and windy.

Some Canberrans said they were exhausted not only from the weeks of preparation but also from the burden of those 17-year-old memories.

“It’s just nerve-racking, just the waiting to see if it will happen or it won’t happen,” one Banks resident said.

Many have their cars ready and bags packed to evacuate if necessary.

In the rural communities to Canberra’s south, many people have left already, though some have chosen to stay and defend their properties.

Among them is Kim Moeller, a resident of Little Burra, who has already lost one home this season at Rosedale on the NSW South Coast.

“My plan is to stay and fight the fires. As long as it’s not catastrophic, we think we’re well prepared to be able to take on any fires,” he said.

“I’m quite keen to defend and save this home.”

Topics:

fires,

bushfire,

canberra-2600,

act

First posted

February 01, 2020 07:50:10

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