2000 - The inferno and the phoenix

When the 2003 bushfires hit Canberra, an astronomical legacy was almost lost, as PENNY SACKETT writes.

The experience of the mountain the day after the 18 January 2003 Canberra fires is etched on my brain.

The heavy acrid smell; dead kangaroos and power lines down on the road; scattered burning tree stumps flaring like the campfires of an invisible army bivouacked on the dark mountainside for the night. The only colours in sky or earth were ash, charcoal and flame.

Faithful telescopes lay in ruins: aluminium domes melted, glass mirrors and lenses shattered. 

In the workshop, the ultra-high-tech Near-infrared Integral Field Spectrometer (NIFS) stood breached by the intense heat, no longer bound for Hawaii to serve as a data recorder for one of the world’s largest telescopes. 

The Duffield and Woolley buildings were charred but largely intact. The iconic Commonwealth Solar Observatory administration building was completely gutted. 

There was a saving grace. Through a contact system devised by our graduate students, we knew that no lives had been lost on Mount Stromlo.

Canberra as a whole did not fare so well. Four Canberrans died, hundreds were injured and about 500 lost their homes in the first documented Australian ‘pyro-tornado’.

The Saturday fire had created its own cyclonic winds, throwing burning fuel far ahead of the advancing ground front. As far away as Queanbeyan, burning embers fell from the sky. 

The state of emergency was in place for over a week. Tragically, 10 per cent of Mount Stromlo staff and students lost their homes in the fires. Every Canberran has a story to tell about 18 January 2003.

The day after, the University’s top officers met to begin to assess the damage and plan a way forward. As I explained to them what I had seen and its implications for ANU and world astronomy, I stank of the smoke that permeated my clothing.

Fortunately, the three most valuable assets of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics (RSAA) had remained entirely intact – its people, its reputation and its spirit. 

Quick thinking by our IT staff saved most of our scientific research; it was either backed up on Acton computers or carried down the mountain in the boot of cars on the School’s data servers. These were the strengths on which we would build and in which we took comfort.

Within three weeks of the firestorm, most of us were back working on Stromlo, though some took up temporary residence in the workshops of our kind ADFA host.  It was a joyous and emotional day.

We reengaged with normalcy. Astronomy summer school classes were taught, research papers written, thesis proposals defended and fortnightly barbeques restarted.  

But there was so much else to do as well: nearly endless insurance paperwork, accommodating heritage concerns, plans for temporary buildings, negotiating with overseas partners. 

We put the proposition that, with the help of the firm AUSPACE, Stromlo could construct a clone of the destroyed NIFS while still delivering on a just-negotiated contract for a second huge instrument, the Gemini South Adaptive Optics Imager. 

Although our own workshop facilities consisted of only a temporary barn, we had the good fortune, support and just enough audacity to keep two multi-million dollar contracts with the largest telescopes in the world.

This was an important step in reimagining Stromlo, the new Stromlo. By 24 February 2003, RSAA had the skeleton of a plan, guided by the School’s mission.

A primary focus was Stromlo’s enviable world-class strength, astronomical instrumentation.

Aided at first by the Federal Government, public donations and internal loans from ANU, and later by insurance funds, Stromlo’s rebirth began. 

The staged process would take over a decade to complete. The fire damage ran into the many tens of millions of dollars and the long protracted legal battles with insurers and brokers were still ongoing when I stepped down as RSAA Director in mid-2007. 

RSAA’s Brian Schmidt, now ANU Vice-Chancellor, won the Nobel Prize in Physics 2011, one of many accolades for junior and senior Stromlo staff in recent years.

The phoenix that is Stromlo continues to rise.