Tuesday 23 January 2018

Bushfires continuing to wreak havoc across island state of Tasmania

Homes destroyed by a wildfire near Boomer Bay, in southern Australia
Homes destroyed by a wildfire near Boomer Bay, in southern Australia

Charlotte Philby

UP to 100 people remain unaccounted for as the search for bodies gathers pace, with bushfires continuing to wreak havoc across the island state of Tasmania.

Officials are carrying out door-to-door house calls in the worst-hit towns in the south of the island while an emergency warning was issued in Montumana in the North-West as fires continue to rage out of control across the state.

Acting Police Commissioner Scott Tilyard said there were grave fears as many people were yet to make contact with family or authorities. ''It's not to say those people have necessarily come to harm, but we can't totally eliminate that until we have contact with those individuals,'' he said. ''But we have to brace ourselves for the fact we may locate one or more deceased people. There are a lot of premises that need to be checked. Until we've had the opportunity to check every one of those locations we won't be in a position to confirm there has been no deaths.''

Thousands of people have been evacuated and hundreds of homes destroyed as fires continue to rage in the town of Dunalley, which has already seen more than 40 per cent of the town laid to waste. The local police station, school and a baker's shop were among properties burnt to the ground. The blaze in Forcett, first reported on Thursday [3 Jan], is still out of control with 34 vehicles and officers from across the country, who have flown here to offer their services, attempting to tackle the furnace.

Joe Dare who chose to stay and defend his property told WIN News "I thought I was gone", after a fireball "like a tornado" struck his home, reducing it to cinders as he sheltered in a nearby dam.

In the capital, Hobart, hundreds of evacuees are still sheltering in City Hall, one of several evacuation points to which people where ferried overnight at the weekend as blazes took hold. Thousands queued up on the beach at Nubeena to catch boats as late as 2am on Sunday. They are reliant on emergency supplies and donated food parcels, as a national Red Cross appeal has been launched.

The whole state has been shaken by the disaster, which shows no signs of abating.

From the relative safety of the spot in the northern suburbs where I am currently holidaying with family, the view across the sea to the Southern peninsula, which is usually crystal clear, is now masked behind a hazy smog. Even here in Taroona, locals are on alert as the smell, like a bonfire, drifts in from across the water and over the hills behind us.

But compared to what is happening elsewhere, it is nothing.

Across the southern part of Tasmania there are now several serious 'Watch and Act' warnings in place, and a new 'Emergency Warning' in the North-West warning people to get out or be ready to implement their fire plan. Some residents have prepared to defend their properties by cutting back scrub around their homes and dampening everything with water, as part of rigorous fire plans. Yet since the Victorian fire of Black Tuesday in 2009, when 173 people were killed, the 'stay and defend' practice has fallen out of fashion, as many residents choose instead to get out while there is still time.

My family and I heeded an early warning on Saturday morning, driving through plumes of smoke as fires threatened the holiday resort of Bicheno Bay, where we'd been staying in a log cabin when howling northerly winds and thick plumes of smog crept in in the early hours. Along the drive we saw flames of varying sizes dotted about the bush on either side, a van full of charred sheep. The trees thrashed about in the wind and the sky was thick with smoke.

While some locals determinedly went about their business, most had also taken to their cars, uncertain that the flames would not cross their path. Up to 15 homes were lost in that fire near Bicheno.

The fires currently raging here have been touted as the worst in Australia since that fateful event in Victoria four years ago. Unusually high temperatures (up to more than 41 degrees when fires broke out last week), strong winds and lush undergrowth - a result of several wet years in this relatively mild Australian climate - have created a ripe environment for uncontrollable and unpredictable bushfires.

More than 20 fires have broken out in the past few days, with trees, scrub and communities ravaged in the process. Four fires which have burnt out around 60,000 hectares are continuing to cause concern, while another massive fire has burnt out a further 60,000 hectares in the state's remote southwest, where several bushwalkers were airlifted to safety.

Ike Kelly, owner of a Dunalley sawmill which was completely gutted by the blaze, told ABC News: "It's destroyed $4m or $5m worth of business. Fifty years of my life, gone." A Dunalley resident, Tony Young, whose home was lost, said: "The trees just went off. They were like firecrackers - 20, 30 feet high, the flames. I'm looking out the window now ... and the flames across the road, at the house, there's a big boat in there and that's just on fire. The gas cylinders are screaming, and the temperature outside would be 70C. It'd burn your face - it's that hot - if you step outside the building."

Discarded cigarettes, lightning and arsonists are among the most common causes of bushfire. In New South Wales, firefighters have been tackling blazes as temperatures soar.

Tasmania Fire Service chief fire officer Mike Brown said crews that they were having trouble accessing parts of the Tasman Peninsula and could give no time frame as to when the fires would be brought under control. ''That's really the $6 million question because it's going to take quite some time,'' he said.

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