Victims and heroes remembered

8 February 2003

CANBERRA, Australia — Victims of bushfires in Australia's capital city Canberra were remembered in a special public prayer service held on 9 February 2003 in the Baha'i Center here.

The fires on 18 January 2003 claimed the lives of four people and destroyed more than 450 homes, a major astronomical observatory and many other properties. It was one of the nation's worst natural disasters.

As prayers were offered for those who died and for others who lost their homes, it was also time to give thanks for the extraordinary heroism shown by firefighters and others during the tragedy.

Among the heroes was the volunteer property manager of the Australian Capital Territory Baha'i Center, Mr John Burnett, 58.

As walls of flame fanned by strong winds approached the Center, Mr. Burnett decided not to flee to safety, but to stay and fight the fire to save the building.

With the flames surrounding the Center, nobody was able to reach Mr Burnett.

Firefighters who reached the building some 12 hours after it was first threatened praised him for his courage.

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The Australian Capital Territory Bahá'í Center saved by caretaker John Burnett.

"He is definitely a hero," said Dr Natalie Mobini-Kesheh, spokesperson for the Australian Baha'i community.

The Center, admired for its graceful architecture, was opened in 1999 by Australia's then Governor-General Sir William Deane.

It has been the venue for a major human rights conference and other meetings attended by senior government officials, and for many Baha'i activities.

Mr Burnett, who has been property manager for five years, said flames landed within meters of the building.

"All of a sudden you just hear this almighty roar and (the flames) just came straight up the hill and hard at us," he said.

"When these sheets of flame came and they landed in the garden, I just went with buckets of water and the hose or something, and put it out as best I could. I don't think I have any eyelashes left," he said.

"The whole place just went black, just like a moonless night. It was amazing. It just looked like a storm cloud had come over, but it was actually fire. It was so bad here actually that the birds were dropping out of the sky."

When asked about the enormity of the task, Mr Burnett simply said he dealt with one thing at a time. At one stage he and his dog had to take refuge in his car.

"I just put a sprinkler on top of the car, just hoping because I thought the car would burn too.

"I couldn't go anywhere because everywhere was flame. If the car had caught fire, I had planned to jump into the fountains. But luckily, the car didn't catch fire."

Fire blackened large sections of the property grounds but the Center building was unscathed. Mr. Burnett lost his camper-trailer in the blaze.

The Center was closed for only a few days but since then the regular devotional meetings have resumed.

Although most of the grounds were burned, a section of lawn immediately behind the Center was saved. This has become a gathering place for up to 30 kangaroos, which are starved for other vegetation.