Record warmth in Australia during December 2019 was accompanied by record low rainfall over eastern Australia, and followed very much warmer than average and drier than average conditions across much of Australia through most of the year. In south-east Australia, above average temperatures and below average rainfall continued during January 2020, while in February, temperatures and rainfall returned to near-average conditions.
Canberra Airport reached 44.0°C on 4 January 2020, the highest temperature ever recorded in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). Extensive smoke from bushfires in neighbouring regions of New South Wales (NSW) affected the ACT at times, particularly in the first half of the month.
Given the high potential for damaging bushfires and with multiple fires burning close to ACT’s western and southern borders, a state of alert was declared for the ACT on 2 January and remained in place until the start of February. Several total fire bans were declared during this period.
Bushfires burning in NSW threatened the ACT’s Namadgi National Park and Brindabella Ranges, prompting authorities to prepare access trails and containment lines, and to protect several historic huts. Military personal assisted land managers and firefighters to complete this work amid concerns that lightning storms could also start fires in the ACT.
The first major bushfire occurred on 16 January next to Canberra Airport. The Beard fire burned through dry grassland and stands of timber heading towards the ACT/NSW border and threatening the town of Queanbeyan. Several aircraft and fire appliances from NSW and the ACT brought the fire under control within a couple of hours. A second fire nearby the following day was quickly controlled by air and ground forces. However, some flights at Canberra Airport were cancelled until the fire was brought under control, and some vehicles were reportedly damaged in the airport carpark.
Just before 2.00pm on 27 January, a fire started and swept out of the Orroral Valley and through the Namadgi National Park, burning east and north-east towards Canberra and growing at about 400 hectares (ha) per hour. The hot dry weather and enormous fuel loads made it difficult to fight the blaze and by late the following day, residents of the small rural village of Tharwa to the east of the national park were told it was too late to leave their homes and they should seek shelter.
By early on 31 January, the fire had grown to 18,000 ha. Within just a few hours, it grew to 21,510 ha and at 3.00pm was upgraded to emergency warning level. As temperatures soared into the 40s, the air was filled with towering columns of dark smoke and pyrocumulonimbus clouds developed overhead.
Spot fires ahead of the main fire approached Canberra’s far southern suburb of Banks, and residents of Banks and adjacent suburbs were told to activate their bushfire survival plans. Some residents decided to leave their homes and an evacuation centre was established at Erindale College.
At one point, 27 fire tankers, eight helicopters, six small aircraft, two Large Air Tankers and one Very Large Air Tanker fought the fire. State Emergency Service and Department of Defence personnel were deployed to doorknock residents to warn them of the approaching threat and assist with other firefighting efforts.
At around noon that day, a spot fire suspected to be from the Orroral bushfire jumped the border into NSW and sparked the Clear Range fire to the ACT’s east. The NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) deployed ground crews and aircraft to the Clear Range fire and prepared to defend properties west of the Monaro Highway.
The Orroral Valley fire was the most serious Canberra had faced since the deadly 2003 fires. The extreme conditions caused the first state of emergency to be declared in Canberra in 17 years and remained in place for 72 hours, providing authorities greater power to advise the community, close roads and help prepare private property.
Offers of assistance to fight the Orroral fire were accepted from NSW and Queensland. The fire eventually burned 82,700 ha of Namadgi National Park (about 80 per cent of the park’s total area), 1,444 ha (22 per cent) of the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, and 3,350 ha of rural lands, making it one of the biggest ecological disasters in the ACT’s history.
The fire was accidentally ignited by a military helicopter. The helicopter’s crew had been conducting aerial reconnaissance and ground clearance to enable access for emergency services personnel when heat from the aircraft’s landing light started a grassfire underneath it while it was on the ground. The crew was unable to extinguish the blaze.
The Australian Government offered a disaster recovery allowance to employees, primary producers and sole traders in the ACT who experienced loss of income as a direct result of the bushfires.