Thousands flee wildfires in southern Australia

Posted at 01/05/13 4:56 PM

SYDNEY - Thousands fled wildfires raging on the Australian island of Tasmania, destroying at least 80 properties and leaving unconfirmed reports of one man dying in the blaze, police said Saturday.

The fires flared on Friday as much of the country suffered a summer heatwave which pushed temperatures above 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) in Tasmania, a southern island state known for its cooler climate.

One of the worst affected areas was the small community of Dunalley, some 55 kilometres (34 miles) east of Hobart, where police estimate about 30 percent of buildings have been destroyed, including the police station and school.

In nearby Connelly's Marsh, about 40 percent of buildings have been ruined.

Police said a firefighting crew was trapped by a bushfire on Friday at Dunalley, where there are fears that a man may have died in the blaze.

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

Dunalley resident Tony Young told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation he realised the seriousness of the wildfires when he spotted 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 told the broadcaster.

"So all I could do was drive the car out of the shed, drive 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 on the Tasman Peninsula east of Hobart, as many as 2,000 people had taken refuge in the town of Nubeena overnight, while another 700 were sheltering at the nearby historic Port Arthur site.

Others have been ferried to emergency accommodation in Hobart.

"At this stage, there are no confirmed reports of deaths or major injuries resulting from the fires throughout the state," Tasmania Police said in a statement.

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 bushfires burning out of control on Saturday in the east and west of the state.

"Those fires overnight did lose a bit of intensity, but generally we've had a lot of firefighters doing active firefighting," Tasmania Fire Service spokesman John Holloway told ABC TV.

"While those fires did abate, they're still doing a bit of damage."

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.

Bushfires are also burning in other parts of Australia, including South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.

Australia's worst bushfires occurred in February 2009, in the so-called "Black Saturday" disaster, in which a series of fires raged in extremely dry and windy conditions, destroying 2,000 homes and killing 173 people.