In a few days it will be the 17th anniversary of the bushfires that ravaged Canberra (the national capital of Australia) and its surrounds in 2003.  With bushfires currently burning to the west of the territory, Canberrans are understandably anxious.  It’s old news but some may be interested in this disaster.  In many ways, the Canberra bushfires brought about a much broader call for research and action to better understand and respond to bushfire risk.  Here are the sanitised details of that event —

On 18 January, two fire fronts combined to create a 25 km fire front and wind gusts of up to 65 km per hour propelled the fire towards Canberra. The Chief Minister declared a state of emergency at 2.45 pm and the firestorm hit the outer streets of Duffy at approximately 3 pm, and soon reached [other] suburbs ….  Four people were killed by the fires, more than 435 people were injured and there were 5000 evacuations. Approximately 160,000 hectares were burnt which equated to almost 70 per cent of the ACT’s pasture, forests and nature parks including Namadgi National Park, Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve and all government pine forest west of the Murrumbidgee River Stromlo pine plantation.  There were approximately 488 houses destroyed and many more were damaged.

A full history of that event, with links to the various associated inquiries, can be found here at the font of all knowledge.

Also razed on that fateful day, was the iconic Mount Stromlo Observatory and all of its historic telescopes.  Mount Stromlo Observatory was, and continues to be, the home of the Australian National University’s Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics.  Visitors to the observatory can view the burnt out domeless shell that once held the historic Yale-Columbia Refractor.


I get goosebumps when I go there.  In mid summer when the wind buffets the city, the chill solidifies into an icy fear; a fear that nevertheless is tinged with admiration for nature’s power.  Nature roars, “I will take whatever you can throw at me and then I’ll raise the stakes.”

Inside the building shell are the remnants of the concrete girders that held the massive telescope.  Above there is nothing but the sky.

However, the view that is most compelling is that of the Brindabella Hills.  It is from these hills, which spoon the city to the west, that the inferno came.


Yesterday I felt the urge to take another photo of the view from that window, but I was prevented from doing so. (I’ve reduced the haze on this photo so that the words can be read clearly.)


So I had to go to another hill to take a photo.  I couldn’t see the Brindabella Hills in the distance through the smoke, so I took a photo of a neighbouring hill in the middle of the city.  Can you see it?  And the telecommunications tower?


On that afternoon in 2003 when the firestorm struck Canberra, firefighters couldn’t see the telecommunications tower either.  Day turned to a fiery red, then black, then grey.

The 2003 Canberra firestorm had the distinction of generating the first documented fire tornado in Australia and the first known fire tornado in the world to have EF3 wind speeds.  Unlike 2003, emergency services agencies knew what they were/are facing this summer (2019/20) in Australia.  The fire models that have been developed in the wake of the Canberra fires and the 2009 Victorian Black Saturday bushfires, are data intensive.  The models include data on multiple complex climate factors (eg. temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, vegetation, topography, etc) and their interaction to identify and manage bushfire risk.  Extensive research underpins this data.  The accuracy of catastrophic fire weather and fire spread predictions has been proven, albeit no one is claiming that the models are perfect.  Still, we don’t need to be 100% certain of the forecasts to take action, do we?  In our current bushfire season, the predictive capacity of the models more than likely saved lives.

The same is true of climate change models and forecasts.  These are extensively tested through peer-review and fine-tuned regularly as new research comes to hand.  Predictions of an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events have come to pass.  The climate models are like a window on our future.  For those who still like to quibble about the science, I ask you, “do the forecasts need to be proven 100% accurate before we take collective action to reduce global emissions?”  In an emergency, if we are not to put our faith in science that saves lives, then what?

The Australian people are the lucky ones, not so our threatened species and other organisms that keep our forests and landscape healthy.  I wonder with such a huge area burned in Australia this year, whether our unique flora and fauna will recover as quickly as we humans will?

In our lives and in the natural course of planetary climate change, change takes place slowly.  In our infancy, changes happen more quickly but as we age, signs of old age creep up on us.  Provided there is no shock to the system (a mass extinction event), we will have the potential to go on.  Even after mass extinction events, whatever life remains (a small proportion of the life that existed before) can make a new home in difficult circumstances.  Global human-induced climate change is providing another shock to our world now.  So we have to act fast, don’t you think?  Alternatively, we can live in the past and deny ourselves a future.


Kind Regards.

For the Lens-Artists Photo ChallengeA Window With A View, and the Ragtag Daily PromptDaylight.  Click on the links to join in.

Further reading:
The Science of Climate Change:  Questions and Answers, Australian Academy of Science
Global Warming and Climate Change Myths, Skeptical Science
Climate Change – Trends and Extremes, Australian Bureau of Meteorology
State Of The Climate 2018, Australian Bureau of Meteorology
Climate models have accurately predicted global heating, study finds, Dana Nuccitelli, The Guardian

Tracy worked for almost 30 years in the Australian Public Service, providing impartial policy advice on a range of industry and regulatory matters, including on programs to assist industry to transition to a low carbon economy.


56 thoughts on “Window On Time

  1. If only our politicians would listen to the scientists and experts in their fields before it is too late. The smoke looks bad in Canberra and I know that feeling of wondering how much closer it will come. We have bad secondhand smoke from the mainland today so I am staying indoors.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I sympathise, Vanda. Yes, stay inside. I think the entire globe is going to cop our smoke at this rate.
      Perhaps the politicians will do more once the vast bulk of Australians (including enough in marginal electorates) and our trading partners demand it. We shall see.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Too much light pollution from Canberra now. The ANU’s telescopes are at Siding Springs. God forbid a bushfire goes through there. But I understand a lot of research is still done at Stromlo. It wouldn’t be surprised if the Siding Springs telescopes can be operated remotely, with the images and data beamed back here. Not that I would know, just guessing.


  2. The photo of the tower is disturbing. We visited Canberra in the middle of last year and made a pilgrimage up to the Mt Stromlo observatory, it struck me as both incredibly sad and beautiful, fitting that the ruins have been left as testimony to what can happen. Hope the smoke clears a bit soon and that our useless politicians wake up and start taking the climate issue seriously.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There is something about that spot that is very peaceful, Sharon, despite its history. The ANU have done a fantastic job making it accessible to the public while still carrying out important research. It provides such an opportunity to spark young minds interest in space and science. Brian Schmidt is good at that. He has a real commitment to science education in public schools, especially at primary level. Or so I’ve been lead to believe. Brad Tucker who works up there has become something of a media tart. My son did work experience there for a week and loved it, but he didn’t continue with physics for various reasons. I should write about that one day.

      I think the drive for more climate action at the Federal level has to come from the people. It has to become a priority for people in marginal seats in particular.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hehe! Humour aside, you made me think and I don’t know Tracy. When we had the Christchurch earthquake a lot of people immediately left and went elsewhere and there was a noticeable redistribution of population. But fires and smoke are affecting so many locations in Aus so where to go? Not to mention highways being closed. And there’s so much more to it than just those things, I know. The situation pains me, Federal Govt’s response is so inadequate and I really feel for Australians dealing with all this stuff on a day-to-day basis with so little support. Always I have you guys in mind.


      2. Thank you, Liz. I know how much you are thinking of us. I think becoming a refugee is really a last resort. Most people don’t want to move away from their homes because there is no other option. I love my city and I think as a country we do much, much more to support our citizens participation in meaningful employment, as well as work toward a more sustainable, low carbon future. I do hope the government gets the message that the cost of doing too little far outweighs the benefits.
        Tina sent me a link to a Tedx initiative to help focus the world on climate change with new ideas and resulting action. You might like to check it out too.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s amazing that we measure time in years between fires. In Southern California, the Cave Fire this November occurred 20 years to the week after the Paint Fire, which began in the same area and burned down to the sea, taking with it some 500 homes in Santa Barbara. Fortunately, the winds shifted this time just before the fire reached housing developments — the fire only took 1 out-building — but it could have been much worse. I am aghast as I read the nightly reports of your fires — and hope that your winds will change soon or bring some rain to help with the fight!


    1. I think we wear our fires like brands, Janet.
      Summer must be a time of dread for Californians. How horrible to think that we can expect much more of this, and across a wider area.
      There has been progress on some fires so that is at least something. Some rain is predicted. Fingers crossed that it does not arrive with thunderstorms. The fires in our alpine region to the west are still burning out of control and are of concern. The terrain is difficult and could get very slippery with rain without putting fires out. On the whole though, it could be a positive. I don’t know. I hope.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I lived in Canberra and the ACT before the fires of 2003 (quite a while before) I was going out with a lovely man who was a member of the Canberra Astrological Society. The group had access to the Oddie.( the beloved Oddie,) I spent numerous summer and very cold winter nights up there with Peter, sometimes just us other times another member or two I felt very privileged to be able to go up and look at the night skies, and see so much I had never seen before. Even when I was freezing to death. It really impacted me when I learnt this amazing building and all the equipment was gone. Lost in the fires. Thanks for bringing some wonderful memories back to me. along with all Australians dealing with fires and the aftermath. In my thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sounds like it was a brilliant experience even if it was freezing. Winter temps have been creeping up over the last two decades, but I still remember how extraordinarily bitter Canberra was. Every now and again we get a sharp reminder of what it used to be like. Many people must have shed rivers of tears over the loss of those telescopes. I wish I had seen the Oddie.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. The states haven’t embraced that idea. I don’t blame them. The Commonwealth refused to participate in SA’s Royal Commission into the MD plan. I expect the states will be carefully considering the terms of reference to ensure that issues relating to the Commonwealth role like climate change and NBN failures leaving people without vital information, will get a going over. I, for one, would like to see a decent national map developed, including live traffic updates. The Victorian fire map was much better IMO than the NSW one. Lots could be done like providing bushfire protection for threatened species habitat and sanctuaries. Maybe this is already done. Who knows? It could be bigger than Ben Hur if national disaster coordination came out of it. I fear the bickering that would erupt though. Think NDIS and make it a huge magnitude more complicated. I should be more positive, shouldn’t I?


      1. My daughter was on alert recently with a big fire their way and she kept telling me not to worry she was keeping an eye via technology. It didn’t give me any kind of reassurance I must admit! I can’t even talk to her due to bad reception. Your idea would be too practical for politicians! Yes, so many vested interests these days. I think this time the plight of animals was so distressing that folks will demand something is done. That’s my hope.
        I’m familiar with NDIS issues. Just moving to NBN at home and dreading it.
        You should become a politician. Change comes from within!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Those fires around Perth sounded awful.
        Are they under control yet? When I couldn’t contact my father, I was in a real panic. I can imagine how worried you must have been for your daughter. There is nothing like being able to hear someone’s voice.

        Not everyone has a good internet connection to keep track of developments. Also cuts to regional TV broadcasting services (with good sub-titles) must compound the difficulties for some people who are not tech savvy or who are in a network blackspot. It can’t all be run out of Sydney.

        I’m not good at verbal jousts, Dawn, and I have a terrible time remembering facts. Oh wait …. Seriously though, I think being a pollie is a really hard job and the issues hugely contentious. No one likes to be told there is no future for them, say for example if you worked in the coal industry. I can’t see anyone sticking up their hand for that job. With all my health issues, I can barely look after myself let alone put the effort into that sort of job. A shame really, because I can’t turn my brain off. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Yes those fires were fierce and sparked off accidentally.
        You have such a strong voice. I’ll send you an email one of these days to tell you how much you have influenced me to live more mindfully.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I have seen so many reports in the fires and photos of its wrath Tracy but your images are the most compelling I’ve seen anywhere. I’d also not heard of a fire tornado. You’ve taken a unique and enlightening approach to the challenge – thank you. There is an effort under way by the TEDx organization to help focus the world on climate change with new ideas and resulting action. Here is a link. Hopefully a new focus will have more immediate affect. Lord knows no one else is doing anything earth-shaking. Hopefully your weather is breaking now.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Tina. As soon as Amy posted the theme, I knew which photo I was going to use. It is a place of learning, science so it seemed like an obvious connection. I’ve been to the Tedx site. It looks like a great initiative that we can make people aware of.
      We are getting our hopes up about some rain tomorrow. 15-30mm and 95% chance of rain for our area. Let’s hope the science of forecasting is a good as I’ve said it is. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The world would be better off without us humans, I am sure. Have always been. But now we are here…and we have to look after our fellow living beings better. A very wholesome, but fearful approach to the challenge, Tracy. I saw they predicted rain – let’s hope. Australia is on my mind every day.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Thank you for this well-researched and informative post. I appreciate what you’re doing to keep people in other parts of the world informed and concerned about what is happening in Australia.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. It is so sad and scary to watch what is happening over there. The pictures of the observatory are haunting and a stark reminder of the problem that is going to keep repeating itself if we don’t do something soon!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the comment and the sympathy. The more we can do, the better. Australia is prone to bushfires at the best of times, so we will still have them even without the dreaded climate change, but climate change just makes it so much worse.


  9. Such incredible devastation, especially poignant as an observatory views far distant galaxies that may no longer exist. What romanticism in that concept. The history of the terrible 2003 fire should have made certain people in Australia (ahem) and certain people around the world (ahem) wake up, but when have facts on the ground ever made a difference to those pursuing the airy fantasy that everything is a hoax, except for the hoaxes they create? Clumsy wording, but you know what I mean.
    Yes you need a break – we all do. Wishing you peace, dear friend, and sweeter air to breathe.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Haunting as they are your pictures of the burned out observatory are beautiful nonetheless. Like Brian I was wondering why they didn’t rebuild it but light pollution from the near city explains it. That picture of the telecommunications tower hidden in smoke is so shocking – and to imagine how firefighters still keep fighting when they can’t see a thing -it’s beyond superhuman powers to me. Really, what heroes they are! It takes a certain kind of human being to stay put and fight and not just run away screaming your head off (I think I belong to the 2nd group).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Sarah. The pictures are a stark reminder of all that we have to lose.

      I would be in the 2nd group too, Sarah. Even so, if I was fit enough and able (didn’t have a serious medical condition) and lived in the country, I think I would give it a go for the sake of the community. Maybe that is all the superhuman power you need. Still, the fact that climate change is making these fires so much worse does mean that as a country, we may need to think how we manage that extra risk as quite a number of those that have lost their lives this fire season were firefighters.

      Liked by 1 person

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