Fire Down Under

By midday on January 18, 2003 — a hot, summer Saturday — smoke from the largest wildfires in the history of Canberra, Australia, hid the Sun.

Few people were overly concerned. Summer is fire season in bush country, and Canberra, on the southeastern fringe of Australia's outback, is often called the "bush capital." Wildfires there are as much a part of each downunder summer as barbecues on the beach at Christmas, or surfing competitions on Australia Day. Firefighters had been battling flames along a twenty-four-mile front for days in the territory surrounding the nation's capital, and, although low-intensity fires fed by grass and scrub had been steadily advancing on the city's sprawling outer suburbs, there seemed to be little danger to life, limb, or property.

Thanks to years-long drought, though, the Australian Capital Territory was primed for a bigger fire. At about 1:30 p.m., flames fanned by a hot, dry wind, leapt to the tops of the native eucalypts and imported pines, igniting them.

What happened next is best described in the slang of fire meteorologists: the fires "blew up" or "exploded."

What had been modest ground fires became high-intensity blazes with temperatures exceeding 1800 degrees Fahrenheit — hot enough to melt copper. Eyewitnesses described plasma-like balls of fire detaching from the fire front and blowing forward to ignite everything in their paths. Flames towered a hundred feet above the trees, and the wildfire grew so hot that it generated 150-mile-per-hour winds. Cars and trailers were blown around. A thousand-gallon water tank was thrown a hundred yards. Three-foot-wide trees were uprooted and hurled atop houses, and full-grown pines were snapped in half.

Fire crews had no time to evacuate. The fire fighters huddled beneath their vehicles while fire-induced winds blew in windshields and tore off doors. The winds threatened to topple their shelters. Fire Commander John Ryan of the New South Wales Rural Fires Service later told the Adelaide Advertiser, "There were birds falling out of the sky as we were overrun by the firestorm." Some firefighters reported that burning wild animals also hid beneath the trucks, their fear of man outweighed by their fear of fire. Describing the scene later, Peter Roth, Ryan's deputy, told reporters, "It was more like a fire hurricane than a firestorm." The deputy added, "I said to the chief, ‘If we don't see you again, it's been nice knowing you . . .' "


The rest of this story can be found in the archives of Natural History Magazine, at , at

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