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Australian fires spread in extreme heat, prompt warning of high risk

January 07, 2013|By Emily Alpert

Flames continued to lick Monday at the Australian island of Tasmania, while officials warned that other stretches of the country faced some of the most dangerous conditions for fires on record.

“I cannot say it more plainly: The risk is real and potentially deadly,” said Shane Fitzsimmons, rural fire service commissioner for the state of New South Wales. “People need to act now.”

Scores of fires have erupted in southeastern Australia as temperatures have soared to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Fitzsimmons urged Australians in isolated or bush areas that have been deemed at “catastrophic” risk to move to town centers, warning “your only option is to leave early.”

More than 100 homes and other buildings were destroyed in the wildfires that raged across Tasmania this weekend, leaving scores of people still missing as of Monday. A Tasmanian police spokesman cautioned that although no casualties had been reported, “we can’t say for certain that there hasn't been a human life or more than one human life lost as a result of these fires.”

Photos of the damage in Tasmania revealed blackened earth and collapsed buildings. "We saw tornadoes of fire just coming across towards us," Tim Holmes of the Tasmanian town of Dunalley told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "The next thing we knew everything was on fire, everywhere, all around us."

Holmes told the broadcasters that he raced down to a jetty, where he, his wife and their grandchildren huddled in chilly water up to their chins, struggling to breathe for three hours as the woods blazed around them. He later salvaged a dinghy to bring them to safety.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who flew to the island Monday and toured parts of the scorched region, said federal forces would help manage overflowing telephone loads and had triggered emergency payments of $1,000 per adult and $400 per child to “help people when they are in these dark days.”

“I've come to Tasmania today … to say to the people of Tasmania that the nation is standing with them at this very, very difficult time,” Gillard said Monday at a news conference.

The massive blaze that swept across tens of thousands of acres in southern Tasmania is believed to have been set accidentally, Tasmanian police said at the news conference. The Australian Associated Press reported that police had accused a 31-year-old man of leaving a campfire unattended near Lake Repulse, sparking the vast fires.

Setting any fires has been banned for days anywhere in Tasmania; the ban was extended across all of New South Wales for Tuesday.

Fire officials hustled to relocate “at-risk persons” in the southeastern stretches of New South Wales, where the risk of new fires is most dire. The vulnerable may include people in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, child care centers and correctional facilities, as well as on camping grounds, officials said.

The blaze injured a volunteer firefighter battling a grass fire in Gundaroo, who suffered severe burns on his hands and face and was airlifted to a burns unit in Sydney, according to the fire service.

Temperatures in Sydney are expected to exceed 109 degrees Tuesday, the Australian weather service reported. Thousands of firefighters are at the ready for the day, equipped with trucks, tankers and roughly 100 aircraft, Fitzsimmons said.

Though wildfires are a familiar menace in Australia and “you would not put any one event down to climate change,” Gillard warned Monday that “as a result of climate change we are going to see more extreme weather events and conditions.”

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