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FIRES had been burning in national
parks around the ACT for more
than a week, but on January 18,
2003, they reached urban areas,
wreaking havoc in the space of a few
hours. Four people died and more than
500 houses were destroyed, including six
homes of ADF personnel.
Lt-Col Paul Murphy led the Army's
response. He recalls a city shrouded in
smoke and darkness.
"The first thing that struck me was the
level of devastation," he said.
As OC of the Land Command
Contingent, Lt-Col Murphy oversaw the
work of some 100 troops drawn from the
ERS, 17 Const Sqn, 5CER, 8CER and 26
Tpt Sqn, and said their work was cut out.
The Army provided support to the
ACT Emergency Services Bureau from
January 14 leading up to the worst of
the fire but Lt-Col Murphy was called in
on January 19. So severe was the effect
of the blaze that troops from 17 Const
Sqn had to abandon two bulldozers while
clearing fire trails.
ERS 2 Troop was tasked with fire-
fighting and recovery activities and went
to extraordinary lengths -- including driv-
ing through a fire front.
Groups from 17 Const Sqn, with sup-
port from 5CER and 8CER, planned and
built fire-breaks at Namadgi and around
Belconnen. They also constructed a tem-
porary crossing at the Cotter River after
the bridge there was destroyed.
Sappers from 5CER and 8CER
cleared fire trails to assist recovery opera-
tions and cleaned wildlife off the road to
Cotter, where whole mobs of kangaroos
and horses had been burnt.
Despite dangerous conditions, Lt-Col
Murphy said troops coped well and were
eager. He was especially impressed with
the efforts of Maj M, then a 17 Const Sqn
Lt-Col Murphy said the Army ran the
fire response like "any military opera-
tion", with a small headquarters set up
inside the Emergency Services Bureau,
working around the clock alongside other
"All the people we met were very
happy for the help and were very keen
to help each other out. There was a good
community atmosphere and I found that
very encouraging," Lt-Col Murphy said.
After 10 days, the contingent was
stood down as the transition to recovery
The Army's assistance was later rec-
ognised by the Commissioner of the
then-ACT Emergency Service Authority,
Fiery blaze recalled
A decade after the devastating 2003 Canberra bushfires, Jehane Sharah
takes a look back at the important role the Army played on the front line.
ON THE GROUND
Cpl Trent Forbes
Cpl Trent Forbes vividly recalls
the moment his team got
caught in one of the fires.
"The wind changed direc-
tion. We were driving with about
10m visibility, navigating using
a compass and a 1:100,000
scale, old map of Canberra.
Some might call it a near miss,
I call it just damn lucky," he
Now a geospatial technician
with 6ESR, Cpl Forbes is proud
of the contribution he and his
17 Const Sqn colleagues made
during the disaster.
"We had a task to do, got
Destroyed: The Cotter River
bridge was burnt.
Hot work: Spr Daniel George
builds a temporary river
Lucky escape: Cpl Trent
Forbes has painful memories.
Maj-Gen Peter Dunn, who awarded per-
sonnel with the ACT Emergency Medal,
with clasp 2003. The Canberra Division
of Engineers Australia also recognised
the efforts of the engineer units through
Bushfire Recognition Awards.
In 2006, Lt-Col Murphy moved to
Canberra and was touched by the conver-
sations he struck up with strangers who
had been affected by the fires and were so
grateful for the Army's assistance.
"Being a Canberran for the past seven
years, I watch with interest the ongoing
developments within the community, ter-
rain and the emergency service, and par-
ticipate where I can," he said.
Firestorm: From top, Cpl James Russel,
then of 2 Tp ERS, supervises back burning,
a 27 Sqn 5CER chainsaw crew clear burn
trees, a house in the fire-ravaged suburb
of Duffy escaped while neighbours lost
everything, a RAAF satellite image of the
ACT shows red areas of the bushfires.
Photos by Cpl Belinda Mepham
One of the
-- Maj M, Special
full of praise for the work of his
Although Maj M is proud
that 17 Const Sqn was recog-
nised with an award for building
the bridge, he said all involved
"While 17 Const Sqn was
recognised as it was the big-
gest element, the other ADF
elements all put in long hours --
sometimes working to the point
of exhaustion -- to ensure civil-
ian emergency services were
supported," Maj M said.
"I think all ADF personnel
performed extremely well in such
uncertain conditions. Defence
work has dangers and fighting
fires is no exception. One of
the teams just escaped the
flames as the back of the truck
Sgt Daniel George
Sgt Daniel George was a plant
operator with 17 Const Sqn,
helping with controlled burns
and fire breaks.
So intense was the blaze
that 17 Const Sqn was ordered
to evacuate, being forced to
leave behind two bulldozers.
"The day the fire hit we
could do nothing. I remember
the black smoke blocked the
sun and it felt like night," Sgt
"Once the fire had passed,
we had to return to the state
forest to see if our equipment
had survived. The route in was
covered with fallen, burnt trees.
It took a day to reach the doz-
ers, all of which were fine."
Sgt George remembers how
grateful the community was for the
"It was good to use a Defence
capability to assist with an emer-
gency in Australia, and hopefully
make a difference," he said.
stuck in and did it," Cpl Forbes
said. "I feel that these tasks show
the Australian public the Army
ethos and give the public some-
thing back for the support of our
troops, both here and overseas."
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