Welcome to Cafe and Bookstore Author spotlight. I invited authors in the Cafe to share what they consider to be a defining moment in their lives that resulted in a major positive change. The current series ends on October 11th and is booked out with some wonderful authors and their stories.
Today’s author sharing their life changing moment is Toni Pike who shares her experiences during the devastation of the Great Fire of Canberra
Toni Pike is a multi-genre author who enjoys writing exciting thrillers for adults, non-fiction, and hilarious books for children. She also loves travelling and being with family and friends. She lives in Australia and firmly believes that coffee and long walks are an essential part of any day.
Do you like books that you can’t stop reading? Pike is the author of DESOLATION BLUFF, DEAD DRY HEART and The Jotham Fletcher Mystery Thriller Series: THE MAGUS COVENANT, THE ROCK OF MAGUS, THE MAGUS EPIPHANY and HOLY SPEAR OF MAGUS. Her latest release is for children aged 6-9: BRODY CODY AND THE STEPMOTHER FROM OUTER SPACE.
She’s also the author of two non-fiction books. THE ONE WAY DIET is a no-nonsense guide to losing weight and coping with the journey. HAPPY TRAVELS 101 is a short book of travel tips with great advice for anyone who wants to travel overseas
The Great Fire of Canberra by Toni Pike
Canberra is the capital city of Australia and is often referred to as the Bush Capital. That’s because this small landlocked city, of just 400,000 people, is surrounded by national park, pine plantations and farming land. It’s also very spread out so that many homes are close to that hinterland and wide swathes jut right into suburbia.
It was no wonder, then, that one day a great fire would come – and I was there right in the middle of it.
On 8 January 2003, lightning strikes started a small fire in nearby, but very rugged and remote, Namadgi National Park. That fire was allowed to get out of hand over the ensuing days. There were several fires by Saturday, 18th January 2003, when intense heat and strong winds struck. But it was only in the afternoon that people in Canberra were warned about the terrible danger they faced.
That morning, the fires merged and created a firestorm that bore down on the entire western edge of Canberra. Emergency warnings were only given an hour before the fire arrived. The firefront reached Canberra’s urban fringe at three o’clock in the afternoon – and that included my house.
The sky turned as black as midnight. The fire travelled at incredible speed and the bushland next to my street seemed to suddenly become a wall of flame. The garden next door suddenly caught fire and an intense ember storm bore down from above.
Neighbours raced next door and fought to douse the burning garden with garden hoses. By doing that, they saved the house and the rest of the street.
All that time, I wondered where the fire brigade was, and listened out for the sound of their sirens. But the front was so extensive there was no hope for them to be everywhere.
I had sent my two children, aged 16 and 18, to the school that was set up as an evacuation centre. My daughter, who had just got her driver’s licence, drove them there. When I set off to find them, it was a very surreal experience. It was still pitch black and the roads were in gridlock, as thousands were evacuating their homes. Along the route, I could see fire breaking out in surrounding parkland and hills.
At the high school, hundreds of families wandered around in silence as if they were shellshocked. Many had pets in tow and already knew they had lost their homes.
Thousands of people had fought with garden hoses to extinguish flames in their gardens and homes. With a mature pine forest right next to the suburb of Duffy, a wall of flame had destroyed many homes. The fire brigade had put up a valiant struggle where possible, but it was overwhelming.
We drove the two cars home in convoy. The electricity lines, which were along the urban fringe, had all burned, causing widespread blackouts. Because of that, the signal lights were out at all the intersections.
At home, the entire suburb was blacked out, and stayed that way for nearly a week. Inside the house there was a thick layer of black soot over everything – but I was so pleased that it was still standing. The water supply was also cut, because the roof of a nearby tower had been ripped off during the fire, and the nearby reservoir contaminated with ash. Gas supplies were also affected, and many homes blew up because the gas connections had not been turned off before the firefront hit.
Nearly five hundred homes in Canberra were destroyed and there was severe damage to surrounding farms and infrastructure – including historic Mount Stromlo Observatory. Farmlands, pine plantations and the nearby national park were destroyed. In some suburbs, nearly all the homes in some streets were wiped out. In some places, the wind had been like a tornado, creating its own havoc. The fire had penetrated further than anyone could have imagined – destroying homes that were streets back from the urban fringe.
After the fires
What I learned
It showed me that in a natural disaster, you can’t rely on the authorities to assist everyone, as that is an impossible task. Every individual has to rely on themselves, and it always takes longer than expected to get back to normal.
I also learned that a natural disaster like that is traumatising and creates a sort of collective trauma in the community. Talking about it to each really helps – and it seemed to be the favourite topic of conversation everywhere for quite a few months.
It also seems to bring out the best in people. Whenever I walked around in the ensuing days, strangers would stop to talk and we would ask each other how we fared in the fire.
Lifelong Friends and Being a Firefighter
Community Fire Unit
The fire brigade established a community fire unit in our street, which I was involved in for ten years until I moved to my apartment. All the neighbours would train every two weeks so that we could defend the street – and we had special uniforms and a trailer of equipment. We all became good friends and had one or two street parties every year – something that never occurred before the fire.
Me with my son and the storage unit
Pine plantations close to the urban fringe were subsequently replaced with parkland and the National Arboretum.
Now the authorities pay much closer attention to keeping fuel loads down close to the suburbs, and there are dozens of community fire units to help firefighting efforts. They also pay much greater attention to warning residents about impending dangers, and have set up systems such as SMS messaging.
So, I think the Canberra Fire qualifies as a life changing experience. There were positive changes for the community, and I gained good friends and became a firefighter (of sorts) – a terrifying disaster that taught me many things.
©Toni Pike 2020
I can only imagine how frightening this must have been for the thousands of people in the area and my thanks to Toni for sharing what is definitely a life changing moment.
Books by Toni Pike
One of the recent reviews for Brody Cody
I purchased this book for my grandson, and this is what he said about it:
I liked this book. It’s about this boy, Brody Cody, whose mom died. He and his dad live together and Brody doesn’t have very many rules. Then his dad goes away and comes back with a new mom. Brody doesn’t like her because she has rules, like eat vegetables and do chores. He thinks she’s an alien. The best part is when he thinks he sees the spaceship. I liked Brody, and he found out having a mom was pretty good. I read the whole book. There aren’t pictures, but it was good.
Thank you for joining us today and I know that Toni would love your feedback.. thanks Sally.