Alison Tener is farewelled by her husband David Tener and their three sons in 2003 (Image: AAP/Australian Defence Force)

In his new book, Paddy Manning charts the human cost of climate change over the past decade. Body Count is a journey into loss, sacrifice and heroism. In this extract, he tells the story of David Tener, whose wife Alison died in the 2003 Canberra fires.

David Tener lost his wife Alison in the Canberra bushfires of 2003. The couple were renting a Defence home in Duffy, a dormitory suburb in the city’s south-west. He worked in maintenance for the Air Force, and she had been a stay-at-home mum to their three boys until she started a new job at Air Services.

They’d met when they were young, on a Contiki tour of America in the mid-’80s. Both were travelling with mates, and he’d gone up to her — a total stranger — and sat in her lap when they were on the bus. Alison thought David was a bit forward, but they hit it off and got married in 1987. When he proposed, David told her in all seriousness: “You’ve got to understand, I married the Air Force first”. Both knew there would be sacrifices.

They moved around the country as he was rotated through bases at Fairbairn, Williamstown and then Richmond, north-west of Sydney. By late 2002 David was facing a possible deployment to Iraq, returning to the base after Christmas, and he suggested to Alison on a whim that maybe she would like a couple of weeks to herself, offering to take the boys to stay with her parents in Coffs Harbour. Alison agreed, having never had a break as a full-time mum.

So she was home alone on Saturday, January 18 as an unprecedented firestorm threatened Canberra. 

The Teners’ home in Duffy was a two-storey weatherboard on Burrendong Street, just one block back from enormous, thick pine plantations at the south-western edge of the ACT. David distinctly remembers being in the upstairs rumpus room one day with Alison.

“She was looking out the window at all the birds singing and the trees and whatever, and she said, ‘Oh, it’s just so beautiful here, I love it. It’s so wonderful’. You know, I still remember saying to her, ‘Yeah’, I said, ‘but if a fire ever gets into that forest they’ll never stop it, it’ll be like a nuke going off’.”

The 2003 bushfires had started on January 8, when dry lightning strikes set off more than 100 wildfires in the Australian Alps that would take out almost 2 million hectares of high country across the ACT, NSW and Victoria.

“What stood out about 2003 is that it was all lightning,” says Phil Zylstra, a researcher with the Bushfires and Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre at the University of Wollongong, “and there’s no indication that that has happened since colonisation of Australia. They were an order of magnitude larger than the worst we’d had for half a century before then.”

Four large fires threatened Canberra: one at McIntyres Hut in the Brindabella National Park in NSW, and three in the ACT’s Namadgi National Park — at Mount Gingera, Bendora and Stockyard Spur. Firefighters initially believed all four could be brought under control, but the predicted fire weather was worse than Ash Wednesday and the Territory was tinder-dry as the Millennium Drought set in: river flows had dropped, grass cured, fuel loads were heavy, and all dead-and-down timber was flammable.

Gradually the main fires converged, and after a feared north-westerly wind shift on the Saturday morning a “fire tornado” whipped up between the Bendora and McIntyres Hut fires — the first time such a phenomenon had been observed anywhere in the world.

Firefighters were stunned: the fire front moved at 20km an hour, later described as the fastest documented rate of spread of a forest fire anywhere. It had become unstoppable, and the ACT’s fire chiefs knew that day the firestorm would burn through the pine plantations and into Canberra. 

Canberra, January 19, 2003. The suburbs of Chapman and Duffy following a bush fire that raged through the ACT western suburbs (Image: AAP /Alan Porritt/courtesy ABC)

None of this was communicated to Canberra residents, who from 2pm were growing increasingly alarmed at the approaching thick, black smoke and falling ash and embers.

At last a state of emergency was declared at around 2.45 pm, which was broadcast to the public by ABC Radio via an official warning some minutes later. Even then, the broadcast suggested there were no fires in the suburbs and no evacuations, and Chief Minister Jon Stanhope, who came on air directly afterwards, said the declaration was administrative and people should not be unduly alarmed.

The substance of the warning, when it finally came, was that residents should return to their homes and prepare to defend them from embers by clearing gutters, connecting hoses and wetting down the exterior, removing flammable items near the house, and so on. Residents were also told to fill their bathtubs and buckets and dampen towels — although, as the coroner later noted, the somewhat cryptic message did not explain why.

Alison admitted to a neighbour she was frightened, yet she kept calm. According to neighbours who survived, Alison seemed unsure whether to stay or go. She was seen closing the curtains, and had packed photos and a few other precious things into the car, which was in the carport ready and waiting. Her neighbours did leave, but at some point Alison must have gone back into the house — possibly, David thinks, to get their cat — and found herself trapped inside by a firestorm that approached like a freight train.

She climbed into the bathtub, apparently misunderstanding the point of the emergency warning, which was to use the water to put out any spot fires inside the home. Alison died in the bathtub of smoke inhalation. The car in the carport survived.

Up in Richmond, David had no idea that bushfires were threatening Canberra’s suburbs. He was rostered off and relaxing at a mate’s house-warming when he got a phone call from a friend in Canberra offering to put Alison up if she needed accommodation. David turned on the television, saw that the firestorm had swept through Duffy and then recognised his street.

“I remember looking at it and going, ‘Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap, that looks like my house’,” David recalls. He hadn’t spoken to Alison since the day before, so he called her but could not get through on her mobile or the landline. Panicky, David jumped in the car and sped down the Hume. When he got there that night, the police had his entire suburb cordoned off. He said seeing his suburb levelled was surreal.

“The best way to describe it was as if a nuclear weapon had been detonated, and yet it picked and chose which houses to destroy, and which not to. Basically you had, for example, the house beside us on the left, totally intact, untouched. Our house, vaporised to the ground level. And the next house gone, and then a house standing, and then another house gone, and then two houses standing, and then, like, four houses gone. It was utterly random.”

In her powerful report on the four deaths that occurred that day, coroner Maria Doogan could not be certain whether Alison had heard the confusing radio warning, but singled out her case as a tragic example of the incompetence of ACT authorities and their failure to alert the public.

“I don’t even want to think about what was going on in her head at that moment,” says David now. “Had she not gone to the house itself, she would have lived,” says David, ruing that he had not been at home to get her out. “Not being there for her will forever haunt me. The guilt is unbearable.”

Of the 470 homes lost that day, 219 were in Duffy, with fires spreading house to house. “In hindsight,” says David, “when you consider that about 500 homes were destroyed, and when you consider how ferocious and strong and powerful the fire storm was … and when you consider that the warnings were to stay in place, or to return to your home, the fact that only four died is unbelievable.”

David was now put in a terrible situation. “I don’t know what was worse,” he recalls. “Realising that my wife had died, or having to get on the phone and tell the kids before they saw it on the TV. To this day, the most chilling thing in my heart that I can ever remember is hearing them screaming over the phone: ‘Mummy, Mummy, Mummy, no, no, no’.”

Even after more than a decade, David says it’s only in the last few years he’s been able to talk about Alison’s death. He commenced a class action against the ACT government for failing to manage the fires and failing to warn the public. The case ran for some years until he reached an out-of-court settlement.

“They reported it as if we backed out, but we didn’t,” David says. “I can’t disclose an amount or anything like that but I will say that it was quite pathetic. If you knew what we received, you’d be quite shocked, people have been compensated more for slipping over in the supermarket.”

David Tener at this wife Alison’s memorial (Image: Paddy Manning)

One positive for David is that in the 2019-20 fire season, the ACT Emergency Services hierarchy displayed a far more professional approach, with thorough and timely public warnings.

“To this end hopefully Alison and three others did not die in vain,” he says. 

David describes himself as “strictly a layman” when it comes to climate science. He has no doubt the planet is warming but believes it’s at least partly to do with natural cycles. “So basically I believe the planet is headed for one of its hot spells, and man is speeding it up. Like I said, I believe it’s naturally occurring, but we are — ironically, if you want to use a saying — throwing fuel on the fire.”

David has no doubt that dry lightning is igniting more fires, and that it’s directly related to drought and climate change. “Because you’re having less moisture in the soil, you’re having more loose soil getting into the air, you’re getting these dust storms … and they are going to create static and they do have to discharge somewhere, hence the dry lightning.”

Asked directly if he counts himself and Alison as victims of climate change, David pauses to reflect. “That’s a hard one to answer, to be quite honest with you … Australia has always had bushfires, and we always will. But I do believe we have entered a new age of bushfires, where the manner in which they are being started is new and different. And yes, that could well be put down to climate change.”

Later in our conversation, David circles back to answer the question again later: “If it can be shown, categorically, that the Canberra fires were started by dry lightning, then yes, I guess we could say we were a victim.”

Alison Tener was perhaps one of the first climate casualties in Australia.

Postscript: At a May hearing of the Bushfires Royal Commission, the Bureau of Meteorology’s Dr Karl Braganza said the first two decades of the century stood out as warmer than any previous period, increasing the odds of extreme weather, including more severe bushfires.

“Really since the Canberra 2003 fires every jurisdiction in Australia has seen this,” he said. “[We] have seen some really significant fire events that have challenged what we do to respond to them, and have really challenged what we thought fire weather looked like preceding this period.”

This is an extract from Body Count by Paddy Manning, published by Simon & Schuster Australia.

Peter Fray

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