Saturday 18 January 2003 was hot, windy and dry with a forecast of 40°C temperatures and winds exceeding 60 kilometres per hour. Lightning strikes a week earlier had started four fires in close proximity to Canberra. By 2 pm on 18 January, police had evacuated the township of Tharwa to Canberra’s south and fires reached urban areas by 3 pm. Conditions soon worsened and, within ten hours, four people had died, 490 were injured and 500 homes destroyed.
The familiar 'magisterial' ABC jingle that opens this news broadcast carries a certain comfort, suggesting that what we are about to hear will be authoritative and informative. Presenter Peta Collins provides the essential information about the location of the fire, the weather conditions and road closures. It’s at times like these that Australia’s national broadcaster is a valuable and reassuring community resource. However, Collins’ words, 'Canberra residents are stepping up preparations for an approaching fire front’, proved to be a gross understatement. Similarly, the following announcement by the ACT’s Chief Fire Officer, Peter Lucas-Smith, that rural properties were most at risk and they are not going to combat the fire until conditions abated, proved to err too much on the side of caution. A decision he later, in hindsight, regretted. This 666 ABC Radio Canberra broadcast was at 2 pm on that fatal day. It contains no real suggestion of the tragedy that was to follow in only a matter of a few hours.