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Canberra Bushfires 2003 Case Study

In the summer of 2003, the Australian Alps experienced their largest bushfires in over 60 years, with an estimated 1.73 million hectares burning. The bushfires burnt across Victoria, New South Wales (NSW), and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) during a drought that ranks as one of the worst in 103 years of official Australian weather records. The Australian Alps are found in southeastern Australia along the Great Dividing Range. They are the highest parts of Australia but are typically more rounded than jagged. They span 2 Australian states and a territory and are found to the north and east of Melbourne and to the south and west of Sydney. Canberra, Australia's capital city, is nestled immediately on the northern and eastern flank of the Alps. Some 1,657,570 hectares of the Alps have been permanently reserved in 9 contiguous protected areas and include Kosciuszko National Park (NSW), Namadgi National Park (ACT), and the Victorian Alpine National Park.

Bushfires (fires that burn within forested environments) in Australia are a natural and periodic event. In extreme drought years, bushfire dynamics change from those in average years. There is more dry and available fuel for fire, whether it is in large quantities or in small amounts. The Australian Alps bushfires started during wild electrical storms in southeastern Australia on 8 January 2003. A remarkable 140 small, individual lightning strike fires were reported starting that evening. Fire suppression crews immediately responded, with many successes, but some fires could not be contained. Fire control responses grew as the fires grew, and on peak fire control days, over 4000 professional and volunteer fire fighters, helicopters, fire tankers, bulldozers, fixed-wing aircraft, light mobile fire units, and other fire suppression equipment were committed to fire control actions across the Alps.

During the 60-day duration of the fires, fire fighters experienced 8 weather frontal changes, some of which brought extreme fire weather conditions, including high temperatures, strong winds, and very low humidity. Tragically, as a consequence of the fires, 4 lives and 506 houses were lost in Canberra on 18 January under extreme conditions. Many Canberra residents required hospital treatment. Considerable property was burnt; normal services such as power, gas reticulation, sewage treatment, and water supplies were disrupted in places; livestock was lost; and rural properties suffered damage.

Despite consistent attempts at containment and control, the fires grew during the 60 days they were active and eventually merged to form 1 continuous burnt area from central Victoria to the north of Canberra. Calmer conditions and rain during February and early March helped the fire fighters, and the fires were officially declared contained and controlled on 7 March 2003. A total area of 1.73 million hectares across 2 Australian states and a territory had been burnt, at least 551 houses destroyed, and property and livestock burnt.

The fires did not burn uniformly, as NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) alpine ecologist Dr Ken Green, an eye witness to the fires in the highest parts of Kosciuszko National Park, the “Main Range,” reported.

“The Main Range acted as a firebreak. Most of the western faces had been burnt, but as the flames came over the main ridgeline and hit the alpine herb fields, they petered out. Snowgrass was able to sustain the fire only while it had the heat and winds coming from the western faces, and in the Mt Carruthers–Twynam area, the fire progressed only 30–50 m into the snowgrass area.”

This was not always the case in lower areas. Under the extremely dry conditions, the native bushland burnt readily, and organic matter protecting the often steep catchments was stripped in many areas. Precious unburnt islands of biodiversity were an exception, although there was variation in the severity with which tree canopies had been burnt in the fire area. Two endangered animal species, the Corroboree frog and the mountain pygmy possum, were the 2 species thought to be most affected by the Kosciuszko National Park fires. Most of the Corroboree frog's habitat had been burnt, and it may be in real danger of extinction in the wild. Areas of mountain pygmy possum habitat at one of its more important locations, Mount Blue Cow, had been burnt.

Special efforts by the NSW NPWS helped to save at least 10 historically important mountain huts and historic structures in Kosciuszko National Park. Fire control actions helped to save historic buildings such as the Coolamine Homestead and its Cheese Hut, Yarrangobilly Caves House, and Kiandra Court House. Similar protection operations were carried out in Victoria and the ACT when conditions permitted. Regrettably, many of the historic mountain huts were lost across the Alps. Some 27 huts in Victoria, 19 in NSW, and at least 2 in the ACT have been lost to the fires.

The tourism industry in the mountains was affected by the fires because of fire-caused closures and the very nature of the incident. A report in the Canberra Times on 6 February stated that “bushfires in the Snowy Mountains could cost the local tourist industry up to 1000 jobs and A$121 million in lost income this summer.” In response, a A$2.6 million bushfire recovery package for the Kosciuszko National Park area was announced by the NSW Government in February. It was directed to assist the tourist industry, farmers, and environmentalists to fight erosion and protect water quality. One response to these investments, a tourism advertising campaign in March 2003 for the Kosciuszko National Park (Snowy Mountains) section of the Australian Alps, was enticing visitors to the area to view the natural recovery after the fires.

Five separate inquiries have been instituted by the ACT, NSW, Victorian, and Federal Governments to look into the nature and causes of the fires and their control. The number of inquiries reflects the jurisdictional arrangements of Australia's federal system of government. The inquiries respond directly to the loss of life and property, fire control actions, and the severity of the fires.

For the Australian Alps bush, fire is a natural phenomenon where the bush is burnt and not destroyed. There are many natural fire-adaptive responses, and most plant species quickly regenerate, for fire is part of the nature of Australia. The Australian Alps bushland in March 2003 is regenerating, although some long-lasting impacts to catchments and to some species have occurred. There have been important cultural heritage losses in the Australian Alps.

Cited by

Mark Ballantyne, Catherine Marina Pickering. (2015) Shrub facilitation is an important driver of alpine plant community diversity and functional composition. Biodiversity and Conservation24:8, 1859-1875.
Online publication date: 14-Mar-2015.

Peter J. Clarke, David A. Keith, Ben E. Vincent, Andrew D. Letten. (2015) Post-grazing and post-fire vegetation dynamics: long-term changes in mountain bogs reveal community resilience. Journal of Vegetation Science26:2, 278-290.
Online publication date: 27-Nov-2014.

Clare Morrison, Catherine M. Pickering. (2013) Perceptions of climate change impacts, adaptation and limits to adaption in the Australian Alps: the ski-tourism industry and key stakeholders. Journal of Sustainable Tourism21:2, 173-191.
Online publication date: 1-Mar-2013.

CLARE MORRISON, CATHERINE PICKERING. (2013) Limits to Climate Change Adaptation: Case Study of the Australian Alps. Geographical Research51:1, 11-25.
Online publication date: 8-Jun-2012.

Koichi Takahashi. (2012) Damage of alpine vegetation by the 2009 fire on Mt. Shirouma, central Japan: comparison between herbaceous vegetation and Pinus pumila scrub. Landscape and Ecological Engineering8:1, 123-128.
Online publication date: 30-Oct-2010.

Nicholas S. G. Williams, Amy K. Hahs, John W. Morgan. (2008) A DISPERSAL-CONSTRAINED HABITAT SUITABILITY MODEL FOR PREDICTING INVASION OF ALPINE VEGETATION. Ecological Applications18:2, 347-359.
Online publication date: 1-Mar-2008.

Roxana Bear, Catherine Marina Pickering. (2006) Recovery of subalpine grasslands from bushfire. Australian Journal of Botany54:5, 451.
Online publication date: 1-Jan-2006.

. (2005) Recovery of Alpine Vegetation from Grazing and Drought: Data from Long-term Photoquadrats in Kosciuszko National Park, Australia. Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research37:4, 574-584.
Online publication date: 20-Jan-2009.

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (234 KB) 

"Pyro-tornadogenesis is the technical term used to refer to the ability of a large fire to produce a genuine tornado.

"Researchers had speculated about the ability of a fire to produce a tornado, but this is the first documentation of the creation of a true tornado by the convection column of a large fire," he said.

"The tornado formed in the plume of the McIntyres Hut Fire mid-afternoon on January 18, 2003, and initially crossed the Brindabella Ranges adjacent to Mt Coree. It then moved through Uriarra and Pierces Creek Pine Plantations and grazed the edge of the suburb of Chapman. The fire tornado faded as it entered Kambah, south of Mt Taylor."

The two year project also involved Dr Jason Sharples from the University of NSW, Canberra, who is also a volunteer firefighter, Stephen Wilkes from the ACT Territory and Municipal Services directorate and Alan Walker from the ESA.

"Our analysis indicated that the tornado had a rating of at least a 2, on the Enhanced Fujita scale of tornado severity.

"It had major effects on the behaviour of the fire on the urban edge and had enough force to remove roofs from houses and to blow cars off the road," Mr McRae said.

"It moved at over 30 km/h across the ground and had a basal diameter of nearly half a kilometre when it reached Chapman. It was a major tornado, but was barely noticed given the setting," he said.

Pyro-tornadogenesis is the technical term used to refer to the ability of a large fire to produce a genuine tornado ... this is the first documentation of the creation of a true tornado by the convection column of a large fire.

Rick McRae, ACT Emergency Services Authority

The research team also showed how a fire tornado is fundamentally different from a fire whirl, which is commonly associated with fires.

"Tornadoes are associated with thunderstorms and as such they are anchored to a thundercloud above, and are able to sporadically lift off the ground. Fire whirls, on the other hand, are anchored to the ground and do not require the presence of a thunderstorm," Dr Sharples said.


The study provides more insight into the behaviour of thunderstorms that form over large fires, which is currently the subject of an international research effort.

The ESA will raise potential impacts of a fire tornado with the Standards Australia Wind Loadings Committee and the Australian Buildings Code Board."

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