Canberra Tales: Keeping the home fires burning


It was not that long ago that winter in Canberra meant that the air was filled with smoke.

These grey blankets across the capital were in part made up of the smoke from the very popular wood-fired heaters used within many Canberra homes. Other additions to the annual smoking events were backyard fires lit to burn off the rubbish and lawn cuttings as well as the ritual large backyard barbecues fires – fired up using wood and any other rubbish to hand. A couple of decades ago Canberrans (mostly blokes) were proud of their raging fires.

While more recent arrivals may not appreciate it, a very significant absence today from life within the inner suburbs is the long-standing ritual of burning off winter leaves along the street gutters. It was not uncommon during winter for households to be smothered in the smoke from the curb-side smouldering mounds of leaves. This was serious stuff. At times it was very difficult for drivers to see down the street due to the heavy walls of smoke engulfing the whole area.

It was also not unusual for temperature inversions to occur brought about by the warm smoke filled air being trapped by cold air above. Flights would be cancelled and sometimes these inversions would last all day.

Surprisingly these whole annual smoking events were seen as normal. It was very unusual to hear anyone complain about these rituals as it was just part of life in winter in Canberra.

I could imagine that many academic hours were spent researching the causes of the smog despite this being very obvious to the observant.


Today many in the inner suburbs still rake their leaves into the street awaiting someone to come along and clear them away.

As I wander these streets enjoying the many clear blue sky days and step over the piles of leaves stacked over the curbs, I am reminded of the former Canberra annual smoking rituals.

How things have changed!

This is part of an occasional series, Canberra Tales, offering short stories, mostly true but including many urban myths, about intriguing aspects of Canberra. As with any story telling, we welcome other variations, accurate or otherwise, to these tales.

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