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19 November 2008
REPORTER: On the afternoon of January 8, lightning strikes in the Brindabellas and Namadgi National Park start four fires, which directly led to the destruction in Canberra 10 days later. Many experienced firefighters believe that it was in those crucial early days that every available resource should have been thrown at the fires.
MAN 1: You just don't leave fires like that in the middle of January, in the middle of a drought, and let them burn.
MAN 2: The initial delay was something that I find very difficult to understand.
MAN 3: There was 10 days. There was 10 days between the first lightning strikes and when Canberra went up, yeah, so there was plenty of time to have a go at something.
REPORTER: These are now considered the worst fires in this area of the ACT and New South Wales for 50 years and the weather is deteriorating. The three main fires have burned through more than 15,000 hectares of some of Australia's most fragile subalpine wilderness. While no property is under direct threat in the ACT, the damage to areas of national park could take up to 40 years to repair.
REPORTER: The fire chiefs had always said today would be dangerous. Fires have been burning in the national park around Canberra all week. Even this morning, they were posing no significant threat, but about two o'clock this afternoon, strong winds brought the flames to the suburbs. When they hit Duffy, it was with lightning speed. Tearing through the pine forests, the flames and smoke filled the sky.
MAN 4: It's burning everything. We can't contain it. But we're just doing our best.
REPORTER: But it got worse. With strong winds blowing embers through the residential area, houses began to catch fire. The helicopters were circling the area, but it seemed little comfort to the residents. The exodus began. Hundreds of residents began evacuating the area, grabbing photos and other personal items, while others stayed, trying to defend their homes with whatever they could find.
MAN 5: I've been here since 1931 and I've never seen this... ..this sort of thing before ever in Canberra.
REPORTER: Dozens of homes burned, with no sight of fire crews. This man desperately tried to save his neighbour's house but failed.
MAN 6: You know, let's face it, it's Australian to help your mates, and he's a good friend of mine. I just wish I could've got some water pressure in there, 'cause 20 minutes ago we would've been able to stop that. Now he'll probably lose half the house, if not all.
REPORTER: Strong winds fanned the flames through the grasslands and parks. Reinforcements arrived, but by then it was too late.
WOMAN: Yeah, we've been on lookout all morning and watering down. It just came through so fast.
REPORTER: It's not confirmed how many houses have been lost in Torrens. Many residents left the suburb in panic. This accident happened a block away from the fire front. Adding to the problems, ACTEW has reported electricity, gas and water has been affected by the fires. Power in some suburbs may not be restored for up to 12 hours.
REPORTER: Through hazy skies, not long after dawn, the horror is revealed. Quiet suburbs once with nothing but bushland between them and the Snowy Mountains. Now there's blackness all around. As Federal Police counted the wreckage, the tally grew, past 200 and heading for 400 homes.
POLICEMAN: Perhaps one of the most appalling natural disasters that Australia has ever suffered.
REPORTER: The human cost is high. Three people were killed. 68 were admitted to Canberra Hospital on its busiest day ever. Already, questions are being asked - could houses have been protected? Could the warnings have come sooner? The Government and emergency services admit the task was well beyond them.
POLICEMAN: A holocaust of an extent that we simply did not and could not possibly have had the capacity to foresee or deal with.
REPORTER: It remains to be seen whether we have learned anything this time.