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The Land of Fire and Flood: Twenty Years Ago, 2003


Fire News Issue June 2003 Front Cover [Museum of Fire Collection]
Fire News June 2003 Issue Front Cover [Museum of Fire Collection]

For this week’s blog we are taking a quick trip into the Museum’s Library to see what was making the headlines in “Fire News”, the official publication of the New South Wales Fire Brigades, NSWFB (now Fire and Rescue NSW, FRNSW).


The year began, as they often do in New South Wales (NSW) with bushfires dominating in media reports. The most publicised was the 2003 Canberra bushfires which impacted almost 70% of the natural pastures of Australia’s capital city territory. After burning for a week, the fire crossed into Canberra’s suburbs on 18 January and within just 10 hours saw the loss of 470 homes and the death of four people.


At the time of the fires most of NSW and Canberra were impacted by drought so when temperatures rose to 40 degrees on 18 January, with fierce winds over 80km per hour, the conditions for a fire were immense.


At 2:45pm a state of emergency was declared, and multiple suburbs were evacuated as the fire began to cross containment lines that had held for almost 8 days. Within 15 minutes of this declaration the fire had reached the urban area. Much of the wider city lost power as key infrastructure was impacted and several command posts also came under direct threat with firefighters battling to keep the fire at bay and away from these sites.


As night came on the 18th evacuation centres were full and the fire continued to burn throughout Canberra’s suburbs. The next day it was revealed that the worst impacted suburb was Duffy. It was here that four lives were lost and over 200 homes destroyed. This was one of the first suburbs impacted by the fire and due to its location amongst a pine forest evacuation was hampered and the order to evacuate came too late for some.

Canberra Bushfire's 2003 [Museum of Fire Collection]
Canberra Bushfire's 2003 [Museum of Fire Collection]

The emergency in the Canberra region was not declared over until the 21 January 2003.


This incident was one of the last during a summer (2002-2003) that was riddled with bushfires. As early as September 2002, NSW had experienced hot, gusty days with conditions ripe for a bushfire. Grass fires began to become common place with the first major bushfire of the season occurring on 8 October 2002 in Engadine. The fire claimed ten homes and saw 25 NSWFB’s respond. By mid-October fires were burning across most of the state and into the final months of the year no corner was safe from the infernos that burned.


Once the fires began to subside around February the weather took a turn and later that same year much of NSW, especially the east coast was experiencing torrential rain. Roads were closed, car were swept away, and flood warnings were issued across parts of the state. Safe to say, these would be nothing compared to the floods of recent years.


Photographs of the official opening of the renovations to No. 1 City of Sydney Fire Station show a very wet affair however reports on the celebration state that the weather didn’t dampen festivities, after all this was THE NSWFB event of the year!

Shand Mason Steamer a part of Centenary Parade, 2001 [Museum of Fire Collection]
Shand Mason Steamer a part of Centenary Parade, 2001 [Museum of Fire Collection]

Back in 1934 the Board of Fire Commissioners of NSW (the governing body of the NSWFB) deemed a new and larger fire station necessary for Sydney. This finally came to fruition 69 years later in 2003. The developments to the station were officially opened on 23 February 2003 by Minister for Emergency Services, Bob Debus and NSWFB Commissioner Ian MacDougall. The event was well attended by members of the public who were witness to the re-commissioning of the Shand Mason which was a sight to behold. The Shand Mason resides in the Museum’s collection, and it is safe to say this one—of-a-kind appliance is loved by all who see it. (To read more about the Shand Mason see the Museum’s blog: Shand Mason and Co.’s Steam Fire Engine in Australia)


The year also saw the transition of Commissioners from Ian McDougall (Commissioner from June 1994 to July 2003) to Greg Mullins.


Fire News September 2003 Issue Front Cover [Museum of Fire Collection]
Fire News September 2003 Issue Front Cover [Museum of Fire Collection]

Across the state new fire stations were built to meet the needs of the growing communities. Shellharbour Fire Station opened in February 2003, replacing the old Warilla Fire Station while Schofields Fire Station was built in north-western Sydney. Up in the mountains the new Mt. Victoria Fire Station was officially opened on 20 September 2003 by Commissioner Mullins. This station replaced the previous 1950s built station.


One of the major incidents of the year was the Waterfall Train Accident. On Friday 31 January 2003 at 7.14am a train taking passengers from Sydney Central Station to Port Kembla was travelling around a sweeping curve when it left the track at high speed and overturned approximately 4.2km south of Waterfall Railway Station. The derailed train collided with a sandstone cutting, causing serious damage to the two lead carriages and tipping the two rear carriages on their sides.


Emergency crews arrived at the crash site to find that two steel stanchions carrying the overhead electricity supply were down, and that the train was tangled in the electricity cables. While some of the injured passengers were sitting dazed on the ground outside the train awaiting help, it was clear that others were trapped and that there would be fatalities. Initial responders provided what assistance they could until the electricity could be turned off and the full response of the combined emergency services swung into action.


As the full seriousness of the situation became known, it was apparent that more resources would be required. The Brigade’s Incident Control Vehicle, two rescue crews, three pumpers and two tactical rescue pods carrying specialized heavy rescue cutting, lifting and extraction gear were all dispatched, however, the location of the crash site made emergency operations difficult.

Waterfall Train Incident, 2003 [Museum of Fire Collection]
Waterfall Train Incident, 2003 [Museum of Fire Collection]

The closest road to the accident site was the Princes Highway and the physical terrain of the National Park meant that everything that needed to be taken to or away from the site had to be carried a grueling 1.5km across uneven ground by foot. Brigade equipment included stokes litters, ladders, oxy-vivas, grinders, glass cutters, power saws, oxygen cylinders, hand tools, hydraulic and lifting gear. Once the gear was carried to the crash site firefighters then assisted ambulance officers to carry injured passengers to the Ambulance triage area.


Extraction was a long, tedious, slow and frustrating process. But the ingenuity and determination of the rescue teams helped to overcome these problems. Throughout firefighters worked alongside members of the Police Rescue Squad to cut away sections of the train so that ambulance officers could reach the trapped passengers. Firefighters helped passengers out of the carriages, carried patients to the waiting ambulances, assisted the walking wounded, gave vital reassurance to the injured and distressed, and provided basic first aid while Ambulance crews attended to the more urgent injuries.


The last patient was released from the train at 10.45am, and after the train was searched one final time by Police, Ambulance and Fire Brigade crews the rescue operations formally ceased. Tragically seven people were killed in the crash, and a further 45 people were injured.


These are just a few of the stories that were grabbing readers attention twenty years ago! For more detailed stories and more about some of these snippets of history keep an eye on our social media as we share more stories throughout the year!


-Story by Museum of Fire Heritage Team

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