Twenty years on from the Canberra firestorm that devastated the ACT and ANU Mount Stromlo Observatory, Nobel Prize-winning astronomer Professor Brian Schmidt shares his experience at the fire front.

People fleeing from Canberra’s Mount Stromlo Observatory on 18 January 2003 described the fire as fluid, like a wave of water crashing over the mountain at speed and with deadly ferocity.

Twenty years on, Professor Brian Schmidt is moved to tears reflecting on his encounter with the disaster and the collective loss after Canberra’s notorious firestorm burned through 70 per cent of the Australian Capital Territory.

“It wasn’t what you’d think a fire is like, and unlike anything ever seen, at least in my life – before or since,” Schmidt says.

The Yale-Columbia telescope at Mount Stromlo on fire in 2003. Photo: Ray Brown/ACTEW/Supplied

In one ruinous day, four people were killed, hundreds injured and 500 homes destroyed. The Australian National University’s (ANU) internationally-renowned Mount Stromlo Observatory, at which Schmidt worked, was among the many government and commercial buildings wiped out.

“The Saturday of the fires was terrifying,” Schmidt says. “I knew things were kind of weird, so I drove our four-wheel-drive ute into Canberra to pick up one of my son’s friends who lived just near Mount Stromlo in Weston Creek. I had my two young boys, so I wasn’t too worried about it. The kids had Game Boys and they weren’t watching what was going on.

“I started driving in and the sky turned black. It was black as black can be. You couldn’t really tell what was going on as the smoke was incredibly thick. I ended up encountering the fire front before we got to the friend’s house.

“I was driving and there was a policeman waving at me. All of a sudden the guy just got in his police car and drove off. I looked up and all the houses were on fire directly in front of me.

“I told my kids ‘look at what’s going on’. And they’re like ‘yeah, cool’ and then went straight back to their Game Boys.”

Schmidt’s pitch to get to Stromlo

Schmidt had been based at Mount Stromlo since 1994, pursuing the work that ultimately earned him the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics

“Mount Stromlo had great telescopes and excellent instruments, as well as a great cohort of astronomers. When I joined in 1994 it was one of the top 10 departments in the world, and still is.”

Schmidt’s pitch to get his ANU job at Stromlo was that he would measure the expansion of the universe back in time by looking at really distant objects. The observatory was equipped with the new digital cameras, computers and software required for this work.

“We’d always wanted, but never been able, to see if the universe is slowing down a little bit over time, because it has a little bit of gravity, or if it’s slowing down a lot over time – so much that it would stop, go in reverse, and you’d have the opposite of the Big Bang. The Mount Stromlo observatory had the tools we needed.”

ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt at Mount Stromlo. Photo: Nic Vevers/ANU

Schmidt’s Nobel-worthy discovery was made in 1998, when in collaboration with international colleagues Saul Perlmutter and Adam Riess he confirmed the accelerating expansion of the universe through observations of distant supernovae, or exploding stars.

In 2003, Schmidt had a mobile phone because he helped automate the first fully robotic telescope in the world at Stromlo. To keep track of it, the telescope would send him text messages.

“While I was at the fire front, the telescope sent me a message saying the temperature was out of bounds at 73 degrees Celsius. At that point I knew there must be fire up at Mount Stromlo. It was the last message the telescope ever sent.”

Schmidt knew Stromlo would be damaged, he just didn’t know how much. It became clear the next day that it was heavily damaged, and all telescopes and most buildings had been lost.

A mausoleum now

Mount Stromlo was home to the powerful Melbourne and Yale-Columbia telescopes.

Where they once were, now stand only burnt-out shells.

Scarred concrete walls encircle the memory of these grand eyes to the sky, like little colosseums.

Commonwealth Solar Observatory. Photo: ANU Archives

The Great Melbourne Telescope was one of Stromlo’s most productive. Originally built for the Melbourne Observatory in 1868, after moving to Stromlo in 1944 it aided researchers to investigate one of the big mysteries of the universe – dark matter.

Relocated from Johannesburg, South Africa, to Canberra in 1952 due to light pollution, the Yale-Columbia Refractor operated as a foreign station for Ivy League astronomers until 1963, when it was donated to Stromlo. The telescope assisted the planning of NASA’s Voyager missions to the outer planets in the late 1970s and 1980s by photographing the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

Stromlo’s largest and most advanced telescope, the 74-inch reflector, was the observatory’s primary research instrument until its destruction in 2003. It ushered the shift from solar to stellar astronomy in 1955 and its capacity to look deep into space enhanced understanding of the lifecycles of stars and galaxies.

The 74-inch telescope after the 2003 bushfires. Photo: ANU Archives

The remains of this highly active telescope, which was being used on the eve of the firestorm, now lie among rubble and refuse under an abandoned but standing dome.

“This telescope had a steel dome, so it acted like a giant oven in the fires,” Schmidt says. “Everything inside was completely scorched, but because the dome was steel, it stood.

“It’s kind of a mausoleum now. Like King Tut’s tomb, perhaps people will open the doors sometime in the distant future.”

The end of an era

One of the most evocative images Schmidt recalls from 2003 is touring the ruins of Stromlo’s renowned library.

“When I came up here, on roughly 24 January, all the windows were gone,” Schmidt says. “I could see the pages in the books and then a puff of wind came and blew all the ash in my face. They just kind of evaporated because they were burned through. The best astronomical library in the southern hemisphere, that was gone and never coming back.

“Stromlo is a place of history. It’s a place that was quite unusual for Canberra because it had this history that goes back to 1911.”

The Commonwealth Solar Observatory. Photo: ANU Archives

The Oddie Telescope dome was the first building on the mountain and the first Commonwealth building in Canberra, after the telescope was donated to the nation in 1909 and installed in 1911. Canberra was founded and formally named as Australia’s capital in 1913 and Stromlo was established as the Commonwealth Solar Observatory in 1924.

“At some level, the historical, iconic nature of having this observatory on the edge of the national capital was terminated on that day. So it was the end of an era.”

Schmidt acknowledges it was an era that would have ceased without the fire, but disaster hastened the change in a brutal way.

“Stromlo had a beauty to it. It also had all these things and they were 100 per cent destroyed – everything,” he laments.

“All of the housing and the director’s cottage, which gave the mountain a real community, was all gone and not able to be replaced. So it foundationally changed the communal character of the place.

“The positive thing is that no lives were lost. But it was close.”

Mount Stromlo Observatory. Photo: ANU Archives

In the wake of the fire Stromlo and the observatory’s staff had to rebuild.

“For me personally, it was profound disruption. All the work I was doing and that of my graduate students was destroyed. I then worked for eight years to build the replacement of the telescope that I had off the shelf,” Schmidt says.

Rebirth and risk management

Mount Stromlo Observatory remains the headquarters of the ANU Research School of Astrophysics and Astronomy (RSAA), which has undergone a remarkable period of redevelopment and growth since the 2003 fire. Today, Stromlo’s sister observatory at Siding Spring near Coonabarabran, New South Wales, hosts all of RSAA’s large telescopes.

Rising from the ashes, in 2004 construction of the world-class Advanced Instrumentation Technology Centre (AITC) started at Stromlo. The centre develops high-performance instrumentation for ground-based telescopes and space missions, including precision manufacturing, rapid prototyping and the testing and evaluation of small spacecraft. It also has the only space simulation facility in the region, testing mission instruments by mimicking challenging space and launch conditions.

“The AITC continues the observatory’s long tradition of creating cutting-edge instrumentation for astronomy and working with industry to commercialise research outcomes,” Schmidt says. “It is seriously expanding Australia’s capabilities in research and development for the space industry.”

Mount Stromlo is also home to the ANU Institute for Space, which is dedicated to supercharging Australia’s space capabilities and developing new opportunities for the global space business.

“Stromlo remains one of the great astronomical institutions and is still a wonderful place to work,” Schmidt says.

The Advanced Instrumentation Technology Centre (AITC) at the ANU Mount Stromlo Observatory. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU

But Stromlo was always a community, not just a facility. That’s why Schmidt hopes to find a way to make the mountain a place that is accessible to all Canberrans, as well as driving Australia’s space industry.

“There’s a lot that we can do and this place should continue to evolve as an iconic part of Australia and an iconic part of Canberra. For me, I’d just love to find means to get the community up here and doing more.”

To better protect the community, researchers across ANU are developing hi-tech solutions including algorithms, drones and satellites, to stop bushfires from evolving into natural disasters like the 2003 fire and recent Black Summer.

“January 18, 2003 was a big day and it’ll always be part of the lore of Canberra,” Schmidt says. “We learn, but the lessons fade. The 2019-20 bushfires certainly drew everyone’s attention to disaster management again.

“It’s not just about learning the lessons, but actually using the science and evidence to predict the next bushfire event. Fortunately, we have an ANU research team that’s trying to work out how to help us better prepare for, predict and respond to potentially devastating fires in the future.”

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