AUSTRALIA

Bush fires destroy dozens of homes during record heatwave in Tasmania

Police checking reports of deaths from blazes on hottest day ever recorded in island's capital

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 January, 2013, 4:00am
AFP

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Thousands fled bush fires raging on Australia's island state of Tasmania that have destroyed at least 80 properties. Police were yesterday trying to confirm reports of deaths in the fires.

The fires flared on Friday as much of the country suffered a summer heatwave that pushed temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius in the southeast of the island, the southernmost inhabited area of Australia which is known for its mostly cool climate.

One of the worst affected areas was the small community of Dunalley, some 55 kilometres east of the state capital, Hobart, where police estimate about 30 per cent of buildings have been destroyed, including the police station and school. In nearby Connelly's Marsh, about 40 per cent of buildings were ruined.

Police said a firefighting crew was trapped by a bush fire on Friday at Dunalley, where there are fears that a man may have died.

"They had to take shelter in their vehicle as the fire burned over them and from there, as I understand it, they were able to see a gentlemen who was trying to protect his property and they couldn't get to him, it was too unsafe," acting Police Commissioner Scott Tilyard said.

Dunalley resident Tony Young told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation he realised the seriousness of the wildfires when he saw plumes of smoke and a helicopter overhead.

"I'd no sooner said that than the embers came straight into the garage where I was standing and ignited the ceiling in the shed and just engulfed it," he said.

"So all I could do was drive the car out of the shed, across the other side of the road and stand back and look at the whole place just being engulfed in flames, just like a movie."

Further south of Dunalley, on the Tasman Peninsula, as many as 2,000 people had taken refuge in the town of Nubeena overnight, while another 700 were sheltering at the nearby Port Arthur historic site. Others have been ferried to emergency accommodation in Hobart.

Authorities said while temperatures had dropped from Friday's peak of 41.8 Celsius - the hottest day in Hobart since records began in the early 1880s - the fire danger had yet to pass, with several bush fires burning out of control yesterday in the east and west of the state.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the government would help support those affected by the bushfires.

"At the moment the focus of course is on still fighting the fires," she told Channel Nine.

Bush fires are not uncommon in the densely forested region despite it being as far from the equator as Beijing or New York. Fires that spread into Hobart on February 7, 1967, claimed 62 lives.