Canberra Remembers Horrific 2003 Fires

This week marked 15 years since a firestorm tore through Canberra’s suburbs – killing four people, and destroying nearly 500 homes.

Footage filmed by 9NEWS cameraman Richard Moran on that day – January 18, 2003 – shows a wall of flames towering over streets, and home after home ablaze.

Much of the vision was recorded near the corner of Eucumbene Drive and Warragamba Drive in Duffy, which is one of the worst affected areas.

A burnt out car in the driveway as a house in Torrens goes up in flames in 2003. (AAP)

This week, a group of survivors gathered there, recalling the events of the disaster.

“We saw it on the hill, I’ve never seen flames like it,” resident Liz Tilley said.

“They were towering up and just racing.”

Ms Tilley was told to stay inside her home, but knew it was time to leave when the ceiling collapsed onto the bed.

Historian Karen Downing also lost her family home.

She has recently shared her story in a book, Tears, Laughter, Champagne.

It recounts how she survived and the experiences of her friends who fled for their lives.

Ms Downing didn’t realise her suburb was burning until a water-bombing chopper suddenly appeared near her window.

A home and car was destroyed in Chapman. (AAP)

She escaped with her son before the flames reached her house, hitching a ride with a passing police car.

“There were burning embers raining down from the pine forest across the road,” she said.

The bushfires were fueled by the pine plantations on Canberra’s south-western fringe.

In the months and years after the fires, as the community worked to rebuild their homes and lives, it was decided the burnt-out 250-hectare plantation site would be transformed into a symbol of peace and healing.

Since then, the National Arboretum has risen from the ashes.

“The first few years after the fire, it was like a holocaust,” National Arboretum executive manager Scott Saddler told 9NEWS.

“There was just burnt out pine forest, rubble everywhere.”

An aerial shot showing the devastation in the Canberra suburbs of Chapman and Duffy following the bushfire. (AAP)

The charred landscape has been regenerated, with the planting of 44,000 trees.

It opened in 2013, and has already had 2.7 million visitors, including royals and world leaders.

The arboretum was part of Walter Burley Griffin’s plan for Canberra, but it wasn’t able to become a reality until after the bushfire disaster.

“Because of those fires, we now have 100 forests of rare and endangered species from all over the world,” Mr Saddler said.

“It’s a place of reflection as well.”

Another site in Canberra still bears the scars of the bushfire disaster.

Mount Stromlo Observatory was all but wiped out.

Professor Matthew Colless, the director of the Australian National University’s Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, recalls arriving at the site in the days after the fire.

“It was devastating, there was complete destruction of all our telescopes, there was complete destruction of all our old beautiful buildings,” he said.

It took the best part of a decade to rebuild the observatory, but the telescopes were never replaced.

However, the shells of the old domes and telescopes remain at the site.

“We’ve kept the old burnt out telescopes as a memorial to what they were like before the first, and also of the fire itself,” Prof Colless said.

“To remind us never to be complacent.”