Reportage

Rebuilding Canberra's spirit

OUR FIRES START in the ranges to the south and west of Canberra. It's fairly open flat country, farm and forest land to the immediate south-west, but beyond the Murrumbidgee, one is in the ragged Brindabella ranges. As hot air from the plains runs into the Great Divide, there is often spectacular lightning The hills and mountains run south towards Kosciuszko, occasionally opening into plains but more usually thick-scrubbed or forested and very inaccessible, with steep mountain sides, creeks and gullies, the source of Canberra's primary and pure water supply. It is dangerous country when the prevailing westerlies are picking up heat as they blow across the continent. Canberra is on the west of the Great Divide and unlike the other capitals, its weather is not moderated by the sea. Humidity is low, the number of sunshine hours the highest of any city in the country.

Only 60 years ago, there were sheep grazing within 200 metres of the old Parliament House. A well-known wit described the city as a good sheep station spoiled. We once had bush flies as bad as in any country town because of the proximity of sheep and cattle. Over the past 40 years, however, the grazing industry has retreated from the west, the south, the east and the north, these areas being progressively taken over by suburbs – to the north by rural slums. The CSIRO used areas around Canberra not only to trial its dung-beetle program but also to breed superflies – sterile Spitfires against the potent Tiger Moths. We retain our blowies, of course; indeed, they are the harbingers of spring. But the retreat of the bush fly is a measure of how one artificial form of nature – the suburb – has taken over another – the paddock.

The great proportion of the population lives in parts of urban Canberra unbuilt and unimagined only 50 years ago. Old Canberra, the city of Walter Burley Griffin – the garden city, the lake and all of the national regalia instantly familiar to most Australians – sits on the Limestone Plains. From Griffin's conception until about 1955, progress in developing the plan had been slow: the town had only 10,000 inhabitants, split into different settlements by the Molonglo River, its flood plains used for golf and a racecourse. Then Robert Menzies, as much as Griffin the true father of Canberra, decided that a real national capital should be built; its growth fuelled by the compulsory transfer of government departments previously headquartered in Melbourne and Sydney. He established the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) and gave it extraordinary powers to plan and develop the city, which soon began growing in population at about 10 per cent a year.

The first fruits of the NCDC's work were filling out the Limestone Plains, damming the river and creating Lake Burley Griffin. But the public servants kept coming and so the NCDC moved on to create settlements in new areas – in the Woden Valley, south of old Canberra, in the Weston Creek area, between the Woden Valley and Mount Stromlo, and in Belconnen, behind Black Mountain, on the land a New South Wales governor had granted to Charles Sturt after his discovery of the River Darling 130 years before.

 

IT WAS THE golden age of planning. The NCDC decided that each new large settlement would be a town in its own right, having a central business area with office blocks and workplaces, mostly for government departments, and a major shopping centre. There would be smaller shopping centres in the suburbs. Canberra would have no single central business district: work and shopping would be close to home.

When it was needed, there would be a state primary school, and often a Catholic school, in every suburb, as well as a small supermarket, a butcher, a chemist, a newsagent, a petrol station – and probably a doctor's surgery and a milk bar. Towards the end of the 1960s, Canberra had more than 100,000 inhabitants, mostly living in such suburbs; within another seven years it had more than 200,000.

The town of Weston Creek, and its suburbs, sat perfectly within the NCDC model. Duffy, Holder, Weston, Rivett, Stirling, Warramanga and Fisher were neat little suburbs with primary, secondary and tertiary streets, all kerbed, guttered, sewered and powered long before the first resident moved in. There were primary schools and ovals, green corridors through suburbs and around the whole area. The theme of the street names in Duffy was Australian dams and reservoirs: Blowering Street, Burdekin Street, Burrinjuck Crescent, Eildon Place, Jindabyne Street and Eucumbene Drive. Fisher's theme was Australian mines and mining towns, Holder's was surveyors. Rivett celebrated Australian flora, Stirling, West Australian pioneers, Warramanga, Aboriginal tribes and in Weston, streets were named after Australian artists.

To the west of Duffy, almost up to Chapman and just across Eucumbene Drive, which connected with the road to the Cotter River, was a major pine plantation. Another marked Duffy's northern perimeter. To the north-west was the Stromlo Observatory, hidden from the increasingly encroaching glow of suburban lights by thick pine trees. These hundreds of hectares of ordered pines, with a cushiony floor, had walking tracks and, over to the north, great mountain-bike and jogging tracks. Commercial pine plantations do not lend themselves to abundant fauna or flora, but they are cool and peaceful.

The suburbs of Weston were not ordinary Australian suburbs. Each was planned before a single house was built. Each was built on bare clay, and few of the inhabitants knew a single person in the suburb before they arrived. They were nearly all young and they came from one of the greatest social mixes ever to be found in Australia.

It stemmed from the forced migration to Canberra of public servants. When compulsory transfers began, the young and the bold were keen to come. Canberra was where the power was, and where the promotion opportunities were. It was the centre. Middle-aged public servants, long established in, say, Melbourne, with children already settled in schools and with their networks of friends, were less keen to move. Many didn't, finding other jobs instead. Those who did got very cheap housing loans or were allocated government housing that they would be allowed, ultimately, to buy, again at concessional rates. Up to 50 per cent of the houses in most suburbs were "guvvies". Perhaps 20 per cent today still belong to the government and a high proportion still have their original occupants. Most of the privately owned ones have been much extended, to the point, sometimes, where there is scarcely an original external wall.

The typical arrival in Canberra was under 25 and unmarried, ineligible at first for an allocated house. Canberra was dotted with hostels and single-bedroom flats, and pubs in which these new arrivals congregated, met others like themselves, and students from Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Hobart and Perth, got drunk, fell in love and got married. Then they either bid for or bought vacant blocks of land over the counter, or bought from a spec builder, or waited a not-so-long time on the government housing list, then went out into these "boondock" suburbs as young pioneers.

 

THESE DAYS, WESTON is almost an inner suburb. But then, it was on the edge of nowhere. The streets were marked out, guttered and sewered, but the land, after the development work, was largely untreed, the barest clay. Everyone was new. Most had no relatives nearby and if they wanted to establish relationships with people of older generations, it would be in old Canberra, not the perimeter.

One met one's neighbours turning clay into lawn or through one of Canberra's quaint rituals – such as collecting 50 free trees or shrubs from the government nurseries. There were 40 million trees planted inside the city limits between 1960 and 1985 – three-quarters of them inside suburban blocks. But it took years before the suburbs seemed green instead of brown when viewed from the top of Black Mountain. And only then could one suddenly observe that summers seemed milder by three degrees and winter warmer by about the same because of the blanket of trees and bushes.

Suburban politics, such as it was, began, as it so often did, with discontent. Despite the promises, services tended to come more slowly than promised. Canberra was the first city in Australia to average a car per family, but those cars were often being taken to work, stranding the mums. Bus services were poor, particularly in the new suburbs. The transition from caravans selling milk and newspapers to the building of the shopping centres seemed to take ages. As did the building of the schools.  The gatherings to agitate for these led to the creation of suburban communities.

A part of the process, nervously shepherded by the NCDC and the ACT social agencies, involved encouraging the development of clubs, teams and other bits of community infrastructure. Land was cheap for not-for-profit groups and areas developed ethnic clubs, sporting clubs and facilities, baby health centres and an array of facilities organised around child care, schools and community service.

In the beginning, these played an important role in the politic; progressively, however, they have tended to become larger, more impersonal and less immediately relevant to the lives of the residents. Families established wider links and became more focused on their own quarter acres, and as, in any event, a new service economy and easier transport made localness less relevant. The area now has several enormous clubs, each with more than 10,000 members, but geography aside, these are primarily businesses subsidising cheap food and alcohol from gambling revenue, not places where like-minded people who know each other congregate. The people of the suburbs of Weston Creek, like people in suburbs all around Australia, increasingly meet the wider world from their front door, they do not move into that world through ever-widening ripples of kin, kith and neighbours, local shopkeepers and tradespeople, workmates and team-mates.

EARLY ON, THE kids were primary social oil. They came in batches. My oldest daughter was born in Woden Valley Hospital in 1974. She was one of 105 babies born in that hospital that day. The median age of the population in Canberra was the youngest of any city in Australia. The fertility of the baby-boomer couples was thrice what it is today, producing an explosion of young children, two, or closer to three to the household, born over about seven years. Eighty per cent of the children in any given suburb were born over the same seven years. Thus, at one moment there were hardly any children of school age, then they were tearing the doors down. The school authorities knew that this would happen and that, 10 years down the track, school populations would be down to a third. So they tried to make do with demountables for the peak flow. In 10 years, of course, there would be pressure on the schools to close because the number of new children coming though had slowed to a trickle of children conceived as an afterthought and a slow influx from new families arriving from other cities. These new families moved into the houses of those going up in the world who realised their equity and moved to posher suburbs, or, by the 1980s, into the houses of those who were getting divorced and dividing their assets.

Slowly the suburbs turned green as the trees grew taller. The gardens were well developed, even more lavished with attention than when the clay and flint were being broken up. The batches of children moved out of primary schools into secondary schools, then into colleges and tertiary education. Weston Creek was settled and comfortable. Canberra might have invented the NIMBY – not in my back yard – and the NOTE – Not over there either – and Weston Creek might have been its headquarters. It was the sort of area John Howard had in mind when he once commented: "Canberra looks like Killara, votes like Cessnock." By January 2003, the typical household was getting smaller as older children left home: the average age of the parent generation was in the mid 50s.

A high proportion knew their immediate neighbours – the people in their street. But the suburbs, generally – even the town – had long ceased to have interests of its own. Canberra, like all cities, has richer suburbs and poorer suburbs. People in almost all of the Weston Creek suburbs, particularly Duffy and Chapman, were more than comfortable, but by most Australian standards, the homogeneity of Canberra meant that not much politics turned on issues exclusive to a particular suburb.

Nearly 50 per cent of the people in Weston Creek – and about 48 per cent of the Canberra population, generally belong to the AB demographic quintile: the professional and managerial classes.  Around Australia, 20 per cent belong to this class, but Canberra is far more bourgeois, better paid and better educated than in almost any other area. A further 28 per cent belong to the C quintile – the tertiary educated white-collar class. So far as there are local issues, they tend to be territory-wide issues, not ones centred in the region or the ward.

Weston Creek was probably the first town area in the ACT, and one of the first in Australia, to establish the average of two cars per household by the early 1980s, and three by the early 1990s. It didn't take long for the rest of the city to catch up, even as different areas were in different stages of growth. To the south, a new town, Tuggeranong, had developed, soon replacing Weston Creek as the Nappy Valley and following Weston Creek's history about 10 years behind. In time, Tuggeranong itself began to mature and the ACT Government began developing a further new town, Gunghalin, on the northern borders of the ACT.

 

THE CANBERRA AREA has always been fire-prone. The sheep pastures of Duffy were burnt in 1903, 1926 and 1927 – each time by fires that began with lightning strikes after dry seasons, built up breadth in the mountain country and were pushed north-westerly by strong dry winds. The fire of 1939 – called Black Friday after 77 people died in south-eastern Australia – was nurtured for 10 days in the Brindabella Mountains before it rose up and swept across the Murrumbidgee on a 70-kilometre-wide front. The then minister for the interior, John "Black Jack" McEwen, scoured the pubs of Queanbeyanfor volunteers to hold the line – about where Duffy now is. The then governor-general, Lord Gowrie, watched the progress from the lawns of Government House with his visitor, HG Wells, before they both travelled out to the front with cigarettes for the 500 firefighters. My favourite tale is of the firefighter battling flames on his own near Uriarra who was caught by a change of wind and realised he was about to be surrounded by fire. He desperately tried to burn a firebreak, but went through an entire box of matches without being able to light a fire. Mercifully, the wind changed again, and he survived.

The 1952 fires – there were three serious ones that year – also reached Weston Creek, following a path similar to the 2003 fire, being stopped at then rural Kambah after having burnt out several buildings of the Mount Stromlo Observatory and hundreds of hectares of pine forest. And, only two years ago, a succession of fires, probably deliberately lit, were stopped, on the western side, just short of the Stromlo forest, and, to the south, at the very edge of Weston Creek. You'd have to have been a mug to be unaware of the danger, or of the risk of the pine plantations beside Weston Creek potentiating an absolute disaster.

 

BUT THERE ARE risks and risks. In 2002-03 there was a drought and much less grass than usual in the open country – a firebreak, in effect, a kilometre wide. The fires in the mountains were not under control – it had seemed too difficult to fight up to them in the steep mountain country – but were thought surrounded and contained. There were more resources available than ever before and while, by Wednesday January 8, a worst-case scenario had seen the fires linking up, getting away with a wind shift and reaching right to the edge of Tuggeranong and Weston Creek, a resolute optimism had prevented this being properly planned for, or the public taken into the confidence of the emergency services centre, itself about to be singed by the fire. The fire, all hoped, would be caught long before it reached the urban edge.

By Saturday, however, the weather had turned. The wind was gusting at up to 80 kmh. The temperature reached 37.4 just after midnight. At dawn, the humidity stood at 46 per cent; by 2.50pm it was at 8 per cent and 100 minutes later was 4 per cent. Fourteen kilometres up in the atmosphere, a plume of dry unstable air was sucking in smoke and firebrands from below. The three major fires had joined and were spotting kilometres ahead, streaking across the open grasslands and into the pine forest. A continuous shower of embers preceded what quickly developed into a firestorm, sucking air from the ground and into thick choking smoke higher than Mount Everest. All over Canberra it became dark with smoke and ash. The fire swept across Eucumbene Drive deep into Duffy, running through green belts into suburbs such as Curtin. Long before then, all of the firefighting resources had been enveloped and overwhelmed. So quick was the onset that the resources were not well deployed; had they been, they would have made little difference to controlling the fire but perhaps 100 firefighters would now be dead. Police on the ground quickly gave up thoughts of helping to save property and became focused on saving lives – forcing householders away from their homes. This saved lives, but probably cost houses: most houses burn after the fire front has passed, from embers and burning materials easily extinguished. But then again, water pressures had collapsed, there were live powerlines on the ground, and gas pipes were leaking, in some cases fuelling fires inside houses.

This was no ordinary fire. It was a bulldozer of flame wrapped in a tornado. Once-brick houses stood in ruins, scarcely brick upon brick. In the rubble one could barely recognise where refrigerators had stood or where there had been walls. A molten lump might show where the cutlery drawer had been. Whole streets were wiped out; in others, a few escaped, standing forlornly but unscarred, amid the char. So swift was the onset, and so little warning had the inhabitants received, that many lost virtually everything they had, except their lives. The loss of precious memorabilia – photographs, jewellery etc – was probably five times greater than would normally occur. A thousand people stood in no more than the clothes they wore. Some, perhaps, had salvaged a photo album or two. Five hundred houses were destroyed, hundreds of others badly damaged. For a thousand people, gardens built and nurtured over 30 years, were now blasted hearths. Fifty were hospitalised, and about 400 more treated at hospitals for burns, smoke inhalation, and fire injuries. Miraculously only four people died; it would have been many more had firefighters been better deployed, or and police not, by making people leave, saved lives at the expense of losing houses. The insurance bill will come in at about $400 million. More than $100 million of government infrastructure was destroyed. This figure did not include the value, such as it was, of the pine forests. And of the children due to start or resume school the next week at Duffy Primary, suddenly half were without a home.

 

A COMPLETE DISASTER, but, as it turned out, in many respects a triumph. Disaster brings people together. Even on the night of the firestorm, there were hundreds of volunteers helping with food, accommodation and emergency necessities, not least clothing, providing grief counselling and reuniting families and friends. A city with some specialties in administration was organising reconstruction programs within six hours. ActewAGL, the public-private utility responsible for water, sewerage, power and gas, did a year's work in three weeks to get services up again. A government committee to oversee rebuilding and interim services – soon to be led by Sandy Hollway, the public hero of the Olympic Games – was providing a wide array of services and co-ordinating the efforts of hundreds who wanted to help.

House-insurance claims were essentially settled within a fortnight; government was also to the fore handing out emergency "no-questions-asked" cheques. Millions poured in from corporate and individual donations. If ever the ABC proved its worth as a national asset it was in its role of steady information provider; if ever some of the failings of commercial broadcasters, particularly in television, were evident, it was here, with two of the channels, which had progressively cut their local news services over the previous year were unable to reflect the city back to itself. The Canberra Times, the city's newspaper, ran page after page of essential information each day, and pages of personal paragraphs in which people told their stories and thanked others for little kindnesses.

It was, in fact, the kindnesses as much as the recranking of the machine that helped renew and restore the city, giving people new links and a new sense of citizenship. In truth, some of the old links, and the old connections, had been wearing thin. People do not identify with public services where one does not know the provider, is treated as a statistic or asked to press numbers on a telephone. One does identify with neighbours who have broken their leave and come home to help, who quickly devise structures adapted to the circumstances and focus on getting things done. A big disaster produces a down-but-not-out spirit that cannot be duplicated in ordinary personal tragedy.

There were some who missed the mood. The Sydney Morning Herald, on Monday January 6, began pointing the finger at bureaucratic incompetence that had led to the fire getting away. Perhaps, and perhaps there was a time for that, but at that stage people were focused on their feelings and their losses and their determination to go on. A dull chief minister who had never previously inspired, found the anger and grace to insist that if anything had gone wrong, people were to blame him, not the brave men and women who had worked their guts out – were indeed still working their guts out – fighting the fires. A refreshing change given the way politicians usually distance themselves from failure. A prime minister not famous for a love affair with a town that he will not live in, travelled about the burnt-out city and found simple words to express Australian solidarity with a community with which many Australians do not usually empathise. A yahoo minister with an obsession about environmentalists chose the moment to blame greenies for the fire and fell even lower in public esteem – for his opportunism in tragedy as much as for the fact that he was grossly oversimplifying.

Of course, we all empathise in the immediate aftermath. Brave, too, were the words of fellow victims hugging each other and swearing that they would rebuild exactly as before – re-erecting not only buildings but neighbourhoods, networks and whole communities. But the grief and the trauma and the loss go on and, after a while, many of the sympathisers themselves move on, while those who have lost must still cope not only with the grander losses of their dwellings but the petty, and not so petty, irritations of having lost their records, or their books, or their paraphernalia, or the petty and not so petty irritations and frustrations of a mass of even streamlined paperwork required to be dealt with to get their lives back in order.

 

BY SPRING FEW houses had been rebuilt. Not a few of those who swore to return have had second thoughts. The quarter-acre block so suitable for a growing family is not so sensible now that the children have left. Could one cope, yet again, with rebuilding a garden that took 20 years to get right? How did one handle kids' sense of loss? With non-stop encounter groups, as some seem to favour, or a "get on with it" approach? Was it fair that the un– or under-insured – those improvident people who failed to look after themselves – got bigger government and charitable payouts than those who were prudent but have suffered unrecoverable losses as well? As time goes on, moreover, there is an inevitable shift towards looking for people or groups to blame for what has occurred, or for anger to spill out. There are still enormous reservoirs of public goodwill, but some of the whingeing is now recognised as being just that. For all of the frustrations, however, the operation has been a considerable success story.

Canberra has stronger bonds and ties than before the disaster.

Australia's great urban economist, Hugh Stretton, pondering the decay of the social capital of suburbs, once proposed an "expressway machine" to restore community values. In his plan, the government would announce plans to build a massive expressway, loud, noisy and six lanes wide, cutting right through the middle of a suburb. The residents of this suburb would, of course, be outraged, even if, for years, neighbours had scarcely spoken to each other, and most lived their lives, if not behind their own four walls, behind their own paling fences.

But suddenly they would talk to each other, form action groups, organise petitions, sell cakes at the shops on Saturday morning to raise money for a fighting fund and start mobilising some of the existing but dormant resources and networks – the school and the health centre, the noticeboards at the shops, and the hall at the tennis club to bring people together to resist the threat. A new conversation and sense of common purpose would begin, establishing and re-establishing links and a sense of common purpose. And, when this point had been reached, the canny government would announce that it was bowing to community pressure and point its "expressway machine" at another suburb instead, starting the whole process all over again. Perhaps, the fire, dreadful as it was, was our "expressway machine".

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review