Sunday 22 January 2012 – The Canberra Bushfire Memorial

Last Wednesday, 18 January, was the ninth anniversary of the Canberra bushfires, so it seemed appropriate to track down the memorial.

It seems as if They don’t want us to know where it is. Searching the web doesn’t turn up much. Eventually I found a page with a map but clicking on it to get a street view (so I could work out how to get there) kept giving me Settlement Road. Which I’d nevereardov.

Now that I’ve been, I can confidently state that the memorial is off Uriarra Road, about 1.7km from the Cotter Road turnoff.

Getting there takes you through the uproar that will be the suburbs of Coombs and Wright. Much progress has been made since I last drove by on my way home from U3A Danish last July. The Cotter Road seems to have been moved: you now have to turn left to keep going along it, otherwise you find yourself on a new, three-lane road called John Gorton Drive. Apparently this is going to be another north-south arterial road.

Coombs and Wright have reached the stage of having roads and kerbs and gutters and street signs. I was reminded of Tuggeranong in 1976 – and for some time afterwards. I used to take visitors there for a drive, all the while humming the theme from the Twilight Zone. (Those were the days before going for a drive felt immoral and extravagant.)

The Bushfire Memorial turns out to be part of Stromlo Forest Park, “a shared public facility with designated trails for bike riders, runners, walkers and equestrians”.

I knew I’d be seeing a fair few cyclists: Mount Stromlo seems to attract them like moths to a flame, and the park is at the base of Mount Stromlo. So I was not surprised, when I finally deciphered a small sign to the memorial, to find the carpark thronging with the cars of cyclists. One chap appeared to be building his bike, and a couple of families were getting ready to roll.

One family had a German Shepherd who’d been for a swim, but they saw me smiling at him and said “Keep away! He’s disgusting! He’ll shake himself all over you!” The only dog of the walk, and I missed taking his picture. Still, it was thoughtful of his owners to warn me!

A sculpture at the Canberra Bushfire Memorial

A sculpture at the Canberra Bushfire Memorial

I didn’t expect to be as touched by the memorial as I was, or I’d have taken some tissues. Fortunately no one else was around, so I was able to sit on a shady bench by the pond and wipe my tears away with the hem of my blouse. The part that really did me in was the memorial to the pets.

The pond at the memorial

The pond

Now, my contempt for people who get all het up about animals rather than people has known no bounds ever since I worked in the Prime Minister’s correspondence unit in 1981. For a start, no one should bother writting [sic] to the Priminister [sic] unless s/he is famous or an actual constituent. All other letters are forwarded to the writer’s local member. Might as well save time and write to your local member in the first place.

Furthermore, why will eight thousand people write about the fate of Canadian baby harp seals, and hardly anyone about people being oppressed and persecuted all over the world? Because baby harp seals are cute and furry, that’s why.

So when I was looking at the wall made of bricks from the ~500 houses lost on 18 January 2003, and reading the sad and brave messages people had inscribed, I did not expect to burst into tears when I came to the ones commemorating the pets that had died. I felt like a hypocrite, for all the years of thinking animal rights campaigners were shallow dopes.

Entrance wall of salvaged bricks

Entrance wall of salvaged bricks

Many animals were lost in the 2003 fires – pets, horses in agistment paddocks, the RSPCA, a whole veterinary hospital and its inmates, countless native animals. And they were not only blameless, as we were, but helpless as well. And the pets were loved, and missed, and part of a home. So I’ve thought again about the baby harp seals. They too were blameless and helpless: the people defending them had a point.

I’ve transcribed all the brick inscriptions, and the signs, on a separate page.

I wasn’t even in Canberra on 18 January 2003. It’s my nephew’s birthday and I was in Sydney. Dac was here, in the pitch dark in the middle of the day, with the mountain on fire, no mode of transport and three cats to carry.

Fire colours

Waiting on permission to use the original

The fire didn’t get to our place, but it came close – not only physically. This walk brought back the memories, along with a familiar sinking feeling: if it’s this bad for me, how must it be for the families of the people who died, for those who lost pets and memories and homes? And for the Victorians.

Glass columns containing photos

The glass columns contain details from photos provided by the community

The memorial pool was nice. I looked at the columns of photos and cried a bit more, and then I struck out on a path around the memorial, where I saw this lizzie:

Lizard on leaf litter

Tiny lizard (~6cm)

which rushed across the path in front of me and then froze on the leaf litter till I went away and left it alone.

It wasn’t till I was on the way back to the car that I realised the cycle path was exclusive, but I’d managed not to set foot on it, so that was OK.

Cyclepath sign, with Black Mountain Tower in the background

Exclusive cyclepath; obBMT

I received seriously old-fashioned looks as I was taking the above photo, even though I was several metres away from the path. Then I came home.

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6 Responses to Sunday 22 January 2012 – The Canberra Bushfire Memorial

  1. Antoinette Lautenbach says:

    So sad. My Canberra disappeared with the 2003 fires, all those lovely forests I used to walk in. I was living in Tassie by then and followed the news, appalled at the deaths of people and animals. Canberra always seemed too well run for such a disaster to happen. Juliet, fleeing with her horse just 10 minutes ahead of the fire – that left me breathless with fear.

    People have to come first, before animals, the environment etc, but I have not yet grieved as deeply for the death of a human being as I have grieved when my animals die. That, of course, says something telling about me.

    • valkyrie1 says:

      You and I shared the dread of not being here and wondering what was happening to our people. Dac was by himself the whole time in the dark and heat, with only the phone working. So many people rang that he couldn’t get his shoes on, and he wanted to be ready in case he had to flee.

      My Sydney relatives were quite relaxed about the danger: “Someone will tell him if he needs to go.” No one would have. 😦

      Were you in Canberra in 1952, when a similar area burned? According to Phil Cheney, former head of the CSIRO’s bushfire research unit:

      “In 1952 a magpie flew into powerlines along Cotter Road near the present location of the Australian Mint. This fire burnt over the grazed pastures of the Red Hill reserve and the newly developed federal golf course, and reached the Tinderry ranges 30 km south of Queanbeyan in a few hours. Another fire, started by lightning near Huntley, burnt over the pine forests on Mount Stromlo destroying the Observatory.”
      Bush Fire Front: Canberra Day Oration 2004

      The difference was that, back then, there weren’t suburbs in the way.

      I feel as if I’ve led a charmed life, never having encountered a serious bushfire till my sixth decade. Unlike neighbours from the country, and friends from Victoria, I knew nothing about what to do. 2003 took me from blissful ignorance to total paranoia in one painful lesson!

  2. dac says:

    Sorry to have missed this one, at least you got to have some nice raspberry muffins and a cup of tea when you got home.

  3. albertine says:

    Thank you again, Val. Wonderful thoughtful writing. It did seem impossible, here in England, that the fires came so deeply into the suburbs. That Stromlo forest had burned was unimaginable until I actually saw the site.
    It seemed to be part of basic childhood information in the fifties – our parents for once in their lives told us useful and credible things about What to Do. But then again, I also remember driving through burning swathes of bush in NSW with my father saying ‘It’s OK – the wind’s blowing the other way.’
    In the big bushfires around Nelson Bay (must have been around 1954-5?) they called out the Air Force – thus including my Dad – to go and whack at the flames with wet gunny sacks. We little kids lay awake in awe all night, scared that he might not come back, and terribly proud, too.

    • valkyrie1 says:

      I missed out on that part of basic childhood information, then. The only fire I remember was in the early 60s, when Dad drove us through flames near the airstrip at Belmont. The wind must have been blowing the other way!

      What I was aware of in 1954-5 were the Maitland floods. We drove into town (Newcastle) to donate a mattress. After the floods, we drove up to look at the high water mark on the houses – it was bloody high.

      I feel that I should have known about big bushfires around Nelson Bay, which was so close, but I didn’t. It was a calmer and quieter life before television!

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