5 Jan 2013

New Tasmanian wildfires trap residents

10:46 pm on 5 January 2013

Wildfires in Tasmania have forced thousands of people to flee and destroyed at least 100 homes.

Much of Australia is experiencing a heatwave, and temperatures in the Tasmanian state capital Hobart earlier reached a record high of 41 degrees celsius.

Some people fleeing the flames took shelter on beaches on the Tasman peninsula, where hundreds had to be rescued by boat.

Fire crews have also been battling blazes on mainland Australia.

Now Tasmanian firefighters have warned residents of three more areas of the island uncontrolled blazes threaten their towns.

Earlier, residents of the east coast settlement of Bicheno were told to prepare to defend their homes because a 4000 hectares wildfire bearing down on them was too close to escape routes for them to safely leave the area.

Now residents in the rural area of Montumana,, in homes around Lake Repulse and in the settlement of Nubeena are on the second highest alert warning.

Residents have been told to activate their bushfire plans and defend their homes.

The fire service says if people have not prepared their homes against a blaze - by clearing bush and long grass around the house and preparing to extinguish blown embers and similar ignition points - they must get to another property or a cleared area that is out of danger.

At least 100 properties have been destroyed as bushfires rage out of control in Tasmania and thousands of people are left stranded.

In another of the fires, a big evacuation by sea saved more than 1000 people who were trapped by flames and fled to beaches.

Most of the properties so far destroyed were in the small town of Dunalley, 55km south-east of Hobart.

About 65 homes and businesses have been destroyed in Dunalley and many are still smouldering on Saturday. Another 15 homes have been lost at nearby Boomer Bay, 20 have gone from Murdunna and about 40% of the properties at Conelley's Marsh have been damaged or destroyed.

All roads into the Tasman Peninsula were cut, so cruise boats were used to ferry tourists trapped near Port Arthur. They worked through the night on Friday to shuttle people to Hobart where accommodation was found for them, the ABC reports.

Volunteers in boats close to Dunalley rescued people who had been trapped on beaches. Cheryl Piper, from Tasmanian Sea Rescue, said it was a frightening sight for the boat pilots, with houses exploding and trees going up in flames.

There are fears that at least one man died defending his home in Dunalley.

Police are investigating reports that the man went missing after a fire crew was trapped by the blaze, the BBC reports.

"They had to take shelter in their vehicle as the fire burned over their vehicle," said acting Police Commissioner Scott Tilyard.

"They were, from that location as I understand it, able to see a gentlemen who was trying to protect his property and they couldn't get to him, it was too unsafe."

On Friday, Hobart had its highest temperature since 1883 at 41.3 degrees Celsius, but dropped on Saturday.

Tasmania's Acting Premier Bryan Green says "catastrophic" heatwaves and wind meant that many houses caught alight before the actual fire "front" hit.

"There was really nothing people could do with respect to managing that other than to protect people and usher them to safe places".

The BBC reports that some 40 separate fires have burned across the island, despite temperatures falling back from their peak.

"While those fires did abate, they're still doing a bit of damage," Tasmania Fire Service spokesman John Holloway told ABC TV.

Wildfires are common in Australia. In 2009, fires in rural Victoria state killed more than 170 people and destroyed some 2,000 homes.

Over the first weekend of 2013, fires are also burning in four other Australian states - South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.

The New Zealand Fire Service says it has not yet been asked to help battle the blazes.