The catastrophic firestorm of 18 January 2003 was an event that most Canberrans will remember for years to come.
The fires on that Saturday came with such ferocity that it was almost impossible for many to prepare. With exceptionally high temperatures and winds of almost 200 kilometres per hour, many houses, businesses and thousands of kilometres of bushland and plantations were destroyed. Four people were killed, over 400 houses in nearby suburbs were destroyed and an immeasurable toll was taken on local wildlife and flora.
Mt Stromlo was almost completely decimated by the fires which destroyed working telescopes, the main Observatory building, workshops, residences and priceless research and archives. Only a few buildings survived including the Duffield and Woolley Buildings, the Visitor's Centre, and some residences. This was the second major fire event at the site, through in regards to loss of infrastructure, the first fire in 1952 had been less severe.
While much of Canberra has since been rebuilt, Mt Stromlo remains one of the only places where the power and devastation of the fire can be fully experienced. The Observatory has become a makeshift memorial to the firestorm and while the ruins bear the physical scars of the fires, they have become something of beauty where people visit, photograph and even get married.
But between the ruins, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Mt Stromlo is steadily recovering and rebuilding. Staff returned to the site less than three weeks following the fires and while sharing offices amongst the lingering smell of smoke, the population of Stromlo got back to work doing what they do best. Staff have commented that an event such as this brings out the best in people; and the Stromlo community, like the Canberra community, banded together to do what needed to be done to get the site up and running again.
The fires are now a part of the rich history of the Mt Stromlo Observatory and are an important layer of its heritage significance.
Fortunately, the Research School's three most valuable assets remain entirely intact - its people, its reputation, and its spirit.
- Penny Sackett, Eighth Director of Mt Stromlo Observatory, two days after the 2003 firestorm
...The storm, instead of hail or rain, it was actually fire embers that were hitting ...everything was just black and red, and the cyclone...was actually a cyclone of fire circling the buildings
- Tim Borough, ANU Facilities and Services