Australia’s island state of Tasmania is struggling to contain wildfires that destroyed 100 properties and forced more than 3,000 people from their homes as areas of the mainland brace for catastrophic conditions due tomorrow.
The government is sending financial aid and extra firefighters to Tasmania amid concerns people may have died in the blazes. Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who surveyed the damage today, said the government plans grants of as much as A$8,875 ($9,301) to help people in fire-stricken communities cover living expenses and find new homes.
The wildfires in Tasmania, an island the size of West Virginia about 240 kilometers (150 miles) off Australia’s southeast coast, forced residents and tourists to seek refuge on boats and beaches. Fires are also burning in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia states amid the most wide-ranging heatwave in a decade, with Sydney forecast to reach 43 degrees Celsius (109 degrees Fahrenheit) tomorrow.
“This is the time to be vigilant and I do particularly want to pass that message on to the people of New South Wales as the temperature gauge starts to rise,” Gillard told reporters in Hobart. Authorities said most of the 100 people, including tourists, that were missing have now been accounted for and there have been no reported deaths.
Australia’s hot, dry climate makes bushfires a major risk in the southern hemisphere’s summer. The worst fires in the nation’s history, the so-called Black Saturday blazes, killed 173 people as they swept through rural Victoria in February 2009.
Eighty percent of the country recorded temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius last week, with such conditions forecast to continue in parts of South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales, according to the weather bureau.
A catastrophic fire danger alert, meaning any fire that starts has the potential to cause significant loss of life, has been issued for tomorrow in the New South Wales districts of Illawarra/Shoalhaven and Southern Ranges, the Bureau of Meteorology said on its website today.
At least 100 homes and buildings have been destroyed in Tasmania, which has a population of about 500,000 people out of Australia’s more than 22 million. As many as 1,000 residents were sent by boat from the Tasman Peninsula to the state capital, Hobart, according to police.
About 600 people took shelter at Port Arthur, a former convict settlement that’s now a tourist destination about 90 kilometers southeast of Hobart, while as many as 2,000 were sent to the nearby town of Nubeena, police said yesterday.
Fires destroyed about 30 percent of the buildings in the Tasmanian coastal village of Dunalley east of Hobart, including a police station and a school, and 40 percent of the structures in the community of Connellys Marsh, police said. More than 20 homes were destroyed in the Murdunna area north of Port Arthur.
Fire crews from Victoria and New South Wales have been sent to help in Tasmania. While conditions eased overnight, fires are still burning in the state, according to the Tasmanian Fire Service.
The Insurance Council of Australia called the Tasmanian wildfires a catastrophe for the island state in a Jan. 5 statement.
“It is much too early to assess or estimate the cost of the bushfire in Tasmania,” Insurance Council spokesman Chris Sealey said in a phone interview today. “We have people on the ground assessing the damage and helping policy holders.”
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, who serves as Australia’s head of state, sent a letter supporting efforts by firefighters, volunteers and emergency workers and expressing “deep concern” in the wake of the destruction, Tasmanian Governor Peter Underwood’s office said in a statement.
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