Search for Australia wildfire survivors
Australian police and defence forces searched burned-out vehicles and homes in Tasmania as they try to make contact with people as yet unaccounted for after the region was hit by wildfires on Thursday.
Firefighters issued an emergency warning for residents in Taranna, 47 km (29 miles) east of the state capital Hobart today, where a fire burning for more than three days continues to threaten residents.
The fires have cut off communities and hampered efforts to search devastated areas.
The wildfires have destroyed more than 100 properties and displaced more than 2,000 people as the continent braces for a second week of extreme heat.
Australia is sending financial aid and extra firefighters to Tasmania. The government plans grants of about €7,100 to help people in fire-stricken communities cover living expenses and find new homes, prime minister Julia Gillard said.
The fires in Tasmania, an island the size of West Virginia about 240km (150 miles) off Australia's southeast coast, have forced residents to seek refuge on boats, beaches and other sites including the former convict settlement of Port Arthur, now a tourist destination. While temperatures have cooled in Tasmania, helping crews fight the fires, other parts of the country face continuing heat waves.
With more hot weather predicted, emergency workers, police, firefighters and volunteers "will again be called upon to protect their communities across Australia", Ms Gillard said in her statement.
Fire crews from Victoria and New South Wales have been sent to help in Tasmania. Australia's hot, dry climate makes bushfires a major risk in the southern hemisphere's summer. Australia last week faced its most wide-ranging heat wave in more than a decade as 80 per cent of the country recorded temperatures above 40 degrees celsius, the weather bureau said.
Temperatures over 40 degrees are set to continue in parts of South Australia, Victoria and New SouthWales.
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. 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 have been sent by boat from the Tasman Peninsula to the state capital, Hobart, according to police.
While Tasmania Police have not confirmed any deaths, they have "grave concerns" about a small number of people reported missing, Scott Tilyard, acting police commissioner, said yesterday in a news conference broadcast on the ABC. "I am fearful someone may have died," he said.
About 600 people took shelter at Port Arthur, about 90km southeast of Hobart, while as many as 2,000 were sent to the nearby town of Nubeena, according to information yesterday from the Tasmania police.
More than 20 homes were destroyed in the Murdunna area north of Port Arthur. The Insurance Council of Australia called the southeast Tasmanian wildfires a catastrophe for the island state.
In the small town of Dunalley, 56 km east of Hobart, more than 65 homes and a school have been destroyed. Nearby Boomer Bay and Marion Bay have also suffered damage.
The national weather bureau warned that this weekend's relative mildness would be a brief reprieve, with extremely hot conditions set to return to much of the country early next week.
Tasmania experienced its peak temperature since records began at 41.8 degrees on Friday, when much of mainland Australia sweltered in similar conditions and fires burned across several states.
The heatwave, which began in Western Australia on December 27th and lasted eight days, was the fiercest in more than 80 years in that state and has spread east across the nation, making it the widest-ranging heatwave in more than a decade, according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.
Wildfires are continuing to burn on in mainland states South Australia, Victoria, and New South Wales.
Bushfires are a major risk in the Australian summer, which brings extreme heat, dryness, and strong winds. Authorities warned earlier in the summer that much of the country faced extreme fire conditions this season.
Australia's wheat harvest is unlikely to be affected by the fires and hot weather, as the vast majority of this season's crop has been harvested, analysts said.