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Bushfires are a natural part of Australian ecology, but occasionally a bushfire will catch people unawares. Such was the case with the 'Canberra firestorm', a bushfire in 2003 that burnt almost 70% of the ACT's pasture, pine plantations and nature parks, and almost completely destroyed the Mount Stromlo Observatory.
The fires actually began outside of the territory. On 8 January, Brindabella and Namadgi National Park, in neighbouring New South Wales, had suffered small fires due to lightning strikes. Unfortunately, sparks from these fires flew into the surrounding areas, and by 13 January large fires were beginning to burn within the ACT.
The fires increased in strength on the 17th, and authorities developed a plan to deal with the situation. This plan had several flaws, including bad placement of firefighting crews.
On 18 January 2003, a minor cyclone ripped through the area, and temperatures above 40 degrees created conditions that transformed the separate fires into a firestorm. Burned leaves began to land on the lawns of houses in the suburbs of Canberra in the early morning, and throughout the day the fires crept closer and closer to the city. By the end of the day, houses in the outer suburbs had been burned, and evacuation centres in the city were filling up.
The fires died down toward the afternoon of 19 January. Hundreds of homes had been destroyed, and four people had died. The Mount Stromlo Observatory, which was home to one third of Australia's astronomical research, had lost all but one of its telescopes and damage that amounted to $AUS75 million.