Nation on alert as bushfires spread, Gillard warns NSW residents to be vigilant

Nation on alert as bushfires spread, Gillard warns NSW residents to be vigilant

07 January 2013

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Australia —  FIREFIGHTERS are battling hundreds of blazes across south-eastern Australia amid warnings of “catastrophic” conditions in some areas with high winds and temperatures in the mid-40s predicted for tomorrow.

With temperatures soaring across the nation, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has warned residents in bushfire-affected areas to to stay vigilant.

A number of emergency warnings have been issued this afternoon amid soaring temperatures, with residents in NSW warned to prepare for the worst.

Tomorrow is not just going to be in the 40s, it will perhaps be the worst fire danger the state has ever faced,” NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell said.

“Do what emergency services tell you, particular the rural fire service. Act early.”

“Don’t just think, ‘Tomorrow is another bush fire danger day, tomorrow is another summer’s day’. Tomorrow is going to be the worst fire danger day in parts of this state we’ve ever experienced in history.”

With temperatures soaring across the nation, Ms Gillard warned residents to stay vigilant.

The Prime Minister urged people in NSW to be vigilant as the state prepares for possibly the worst bushfire conditions in many years.

Clouds from a nearby bushfire are seen over Mount Wellington in Hobart. Photo: Mark Metcalfe

The mercury is expected to skyrocket in many parts of the state tomorrow as a heatwave pushes super hot air from inland Australia into NSW.

In the far west the temperature in some towns is predicted to hit 45 degrees, while in Sydney a forecast 43 degrees will make it the third hottest day on record.

“We know that NSW is about to move into an extreme heat period,” Ms Gillard said.

That does mean that there will be fire warnings in parts of NSW, that fire risk is extreme.”

In parts of NSW, fire risk levels may move to “catastrophic”, the Prime Minister warned.

“This is the time to be vigilant and I do particularly want to pass that message to the people of NSW as the temperature gauge starts to rise.”

That meant staying alert, listening to warnings from local authorities and activating bushfire plans.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the Tasmania Fire Service’s control centre. Picture: Luke Bowden

Meanwhile, a firefighter has been badly burned while battling an out-of-control fire north of Canberra.

The grassfire on Gundaroo Road, between the NSW town of Gundaroo and Gunning has burnt 50 hectares.

The NSW Rural Fire Services firefighter was taken by helicopter this afternoon to Concord Hospital in Sydney with severe burns.

Gundaroo Road is closed from the Hume Highway. ACT firefighters have put out one of three blazes they were battling in the Territory’s south.

The NSW town of Oura, near Wagga Wagga, has been cut off as a fast-moving grassfire approaches.

The fire is approximately 400 hectares in size and firefighters have been deployed to protect properties.

Tasmania’s bushfire emergency has shifted to the state’s north west, with some residents warned it may be too late to leave their homes.

The Tasmania Fire Service has issued an emergency warning over a large out-of-control bushfire heading towards the towns of Mawbanna and Montumana, in the state’s north.

Four watch and act warnings remain in place for bushfires across the state, including the Forcett blaze, a blaze at Bicheno on the east coast, the fire at Lake Repulse, north of Hobart and a blaze at Epping Forest in central Tasmania.

Residents have been told to enact their bushfire survival plans as it may be too late to leave their properties.

In Victoria, an alert was issued for a slow-moving fire near Drik Drik in the state’s south-west.

In South Australia, the Country Fire Service crews are battling a bushfire about 4km west of Hoyleton. They have urged people in the area to activate their bushfire survival plans.

The blaze comes as much of South Australia swelters through another day in the low to mid 40s.

Earlier, Ms Gillard was today briefed by emergency officials at the Tasmanian Fire Service control centre in Cambridge.

Julia Gillard speaks with a staff member in the incident control room Picture: Luke Bowden

The Prime Minister told residents that the nation is “standing by them at this difficult time”.

This morning Tasmanian police said most of the 100 people missing in the bushfires have been accounted for.

The ABC reported that 245 properties have been searched in the town of Dunalley and that no bodies were found.

The Prime Minister said it was an anxious time for the family and friends of those affected by the fires.

“We’re thinking of you in these moments in these moments of grief and despair.”

Ms Gillard said the Commonwealth was working with the Tasmanian government, the fire service, police and local authorities to provide practical assistance.

“We’re working through our Australian Defence Force that has provided some assistance.

A satellite photo from Sunday afternoon showing smoke plumes over Tasmania. Picture: Aqua Satellite

“We’re working through assisting with practical things like managing phone call loads and coping with the overflow as people ring in in their hundreds.”

Ms Gillard praised the “mateship” of the Victorian firefighters who were helping battle the bushfires, saying they were “returning the favour” to those who helped out during the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009.

Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings warned the fire danger was not over.

“It’s very important people remain vigilant,” she said.

Dunalley school to be rebuilt

Dunalley primary school, which was one of around 100 buildings which have burned down across the state since Friday, will be rebuilt.

Tasmanian Education Minister Nick McKim said alternative schooling arrangements were being made for the approximately 130 students enrolled at the school.

“We are already looking at options for students when Term One begins on 5 February, and this is our first priority,” Mr McKim said in a statement.

“I will visit Dunalley as soon as possible to assess the situation and talk with the community about their priorities and the options for educating their children in 2013.”

Mr McKim said the government was committed to rebuilding the school.

“I want to reassure the Dunalley community that we will work closely with them to ensure the new school meets their needs,” he said.

Bushfires have caused at least $26 million in damage in Tasmania, the Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) says.

But the council expects the figure to grow rapidly as people return to damaged and destroyed homes on the Tasman Peninsula, which has been fire-ravaged since Friday.

John Yaxley stands in front of the remains of his parents home in Copping. Picture: Sam Rosewarne

The ICA said insurers had received over 325 claims for damaged homes, businesses, holiday shacks and vehicles.

Most of missing located, say police

Tasmania Police Inspector John Arnold told ABC Radio that most of the names on the list of missing in the devastated town of Dunalley have been cross-checked and located.

He said police are still working their way through the list but there were no fatalities so far based on “the information we have at the moment”.

However, he said “it may be a possibility down the track”.

Police said there was no indication that any of the state’s bushfires were deliberately lit, the ABC reported.

(From left) Dunalley couple Patricia and John McCauley with Patricia’s mother Doris Aspden who lives with them lost everything in the fires Picture: Roger Lovell

Earlier today, Acting Police Commissioner Scott Tilyard told the ABC that there are about 100 people with whom authorities have been unable to make contact.

“That’s not to say that those people necessarily have come to any harm, but obviously we can’t totally eliminate that until we’ve had confirmed contact with those individuals,” he said.

Acting Tasmanian Premier Bryan Green said he hoped there would be no fatalities.

“I hope from the bottom of my heart that nobody has lost their lives through the fire, we will just have to wait for police to make those assessments,” he told reporters.

“We’re hoping very much along with everyone else that there won’t be (any deaths), but we need to go through the process to confirm that there hasn’t been,” Mr Green said.

“If you have a house or a shack that burns to the ground that there’s quite a thorough examination that needs to happen to confirm that there is definitely no deceased person in there.”

“I am fearful that someone may have died in this fire… it is a very distinct possibility still and I think people need to brace themselves that that may occur,” Mr Tilyard said, saying there were grave fears in a “handful” of cases.

Hobart wakes under a blanket of smoke as bushfires ravage Tasmania’s south-east. Les Reynolds surveys the damage in Carlton River. Picture: Mark Stewart

“Whilst we have had no known deaths associated with these fires at this particular point in time, I want to make it quite clear that it is still far too early to confirm that that is not the case,” he added.

The danger is not over yet

There are also fears of further fire damage with above average temperatures expected today – Hobart is forecast to reach 29C and Launceston 30C.

Temperatures will stay high until Wednesday and are also expected to be above average again in the days following.

“While we hopefully will not experience those once-in-a-generation, horrific, catastrophic weather conditions that we faced on Friday, there isn’t a decent rain ahead of us,” emergency services minister David O’Byrne said.

“There are still some weather conditions later this week where the temperatures will rise again … which will mean not only the existing fires but other bushfire prone areas of Tasmania will be under threat.”

Fire chiefs say they can’t predict when the massive blazes in the state will be brought under control.

Police and troops will today continue going door to door in the worst-hit towns of Dunalley and Boomer Bay to search for the missing and confirm no lives had been lost in conditions officials had described as catastrophic.

Nation buckles under heatwave

A total fire ban will be in place for the ACT tomorrow.

Acting ACT emergency services commissioner Tony Graham said with the forecast for a very hot and windy day, the fire danger for the Territory on Tuesday would be extreme.

“If a fire starts at the forecast fire danger level of extreme it may be uncontrollable, unpredictable and fast moving flames will be higher than roof tops,” the ACT Emergency Services Agency said in a statement.

“There is a very high likelihood that people in the path of the fire will be injured or die.”

In the Northern Territory, authorities are warning people to be on the lookout for arsonists, as hot windy conditions fan bushfires in central Australia.

A eucalptus tree ignites near Dunalley, Tasmania. PIC:: Richard Jupe

Bushfires NT senior fire control officer Geoff Kenna said there were several fires currently burning in Central Australia, although none threatened lives or property.

Mr Kenna said the current fires were thought to have started from lightning strikes, but people should be alert to firebugs.

Bosses are being urged to shift staff working times to cooler parts of the day on Tuesday, with near-record heat predicted to grip much of NSW.

WorkCover NSW is urging employers to reschedule work for the early morning or late afternoon because of the extreme weather forecast.

Nothing but the shirts on their backs

Meanwhile in Hobart, 92-year-old Doris Aspden tok the material of her shirt between her fingers and declared: “This is what we’ve got.”

Mrs Aspden, her son John McCauley and daughter-in-law Patricia McCauley sat in Hobart’s City Hall, where a refuge has been set up for those evacuated by boat from the bushfire ravaged Tasman Peninsula.

The family lost everything, including their home of five months, at Dunalley, the worst hit town of the Tasmanian bushfire crisis.

Because they’d moved so recently, they were yet to take out contents insurance.

They’d cleared the area around the house on their five acres and had the fire service burn a break for them, all to no avail.

“We said, ‘It’s going to be a hot summer and we might have bushfires’, so we wanted it all cleared,” Mrs McCauley said.

“It didn’t work though. It’s really cleared now.”

The fishing village of Dunalley is known to many visitors as a meal stop on the way to or from the major attraction of Port Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula.

Its bakery and pub offering seafood sit either side of its famous Denison Canal.

A major bushfire swept through Dunalley in Tasmania. Picture: Richard Jupe
The McCauleys’ son-in-law watched his oyster-farming gear go up in smoke, including his boats.

While Mrs McCauley’s priority was getting Mrs Aspden to safety, Mr McCauley tried to stay and defend their home.

“It was 62 degrees at the head of the fire. It was blistering the paint,” he said.

“That’s when you die, 62 degrees.”

Mrs McCauley went back for him only to be stopped by police.

“When I found out he was going to stay and fight that fire we went back to get him because we were too scared.”

Mrs Aspden will head to NSW to stay with one of her daughters, while the McCauleys have been overwhelmed by offers of accommodation and support.

Smoke plume from a bushfire burning at Forcett in Tasmania. Photo: Twitter, @foodsideoflife

They are already looking to the future.

“We never look backwards. No point,” Mrs McCauley said.

“You start again.”

Her husband agrees.

“No use sitting there crying and blubbering about it, it’s gone and nothing we’re going to do is bringing it back.”

Evacuations continue as fires rage on

More than 1000 people were evacuated from the peninsula to Hobart via boat, with the final ferryload of 180 people departing Nubeena for the capital early yesterday morning.

Hundreds more have sought refuge with relatives and in evacuation centres across the region, including at the Port Arthur historic site.

The threat posed to communities by the Forcett bushfire was downgraded to watch and act, but the blaze continues to burn out of control, and has already done massive damage throughout the peninsula.

Tasmania Fire Service (TFS) chief fire officer Mike Brown said a bushfire near Bicheno had destroyed between 10 and 15 homes, and burned around 7000 hectares.

The Bicheno fire continues to burn out of control and the town’s main access route, Coles Bay Road, was closed again after briefly reopening on Sunday morning. Mr Brown said the TFS was hopeful of getting the fire under control within the next 48 hours.

The town of Dunalley was the worst hit, with around 65 homes and the town’s school destroyed, while dozens more buildings were razed at Connellys Marsh, Eaglehawk Neck, Murdunna, Copping and Primrose Sands.

Queen sends her best wishes

Authorities have pledged to rebuild the bushfire ravaged town of Dunalley and restore to the happy place it once was.

“It seems, obviously, the community of Dunalley has been most affected … as soon as we can, we will be there to make sure we reassure those people that we will rebuild this community,” acting Premier Green said.

“It is an important part of Tasmania and there is no reason why we can’t bring Dunalley back to what it was and ensure people can get on and live the happy, healthy lifestyle the whole area was famous for,” he said.

The federal government is making disaster relief funding of up to a $1000 per person available to Tasmanians affected by bushfires currently raging out of control through the state’s southeast.

Speaking in Sydney, Minister for Emergency Management Nicola Roxon said the government had made emergency funding available for those impacted by the fires.

“People living in the local government areas affected will be able to claim up a $1000 per adult and $400 per child,” she said.

“Other emergency assistance will be made available for people who need money for food and temporary accommodation.

“That comes on top of the funding that Tasmania and the commonwealth together will invest to rebuild those communities.”

The Red Cross yesterday officially launched its Tasmanian Bushfires 2013 Appeal, and encouraged Australians to give generously.

The organisation’s Tasmanian executive director Ian Burke said money donated would go a long way.

“Many families now face a huge challenge to rebuild their lives,” Dr Burke said. “The priority for this appeal will be to assist people directly affected by the bushfires and we urge Australians to donate funds to help the people of Tasmania recover from this devastating disaster.”

Donations can be made at or by calling 1800 811 700.

The Queen has also expressed her concern for the bushfire victims in a brief note passed on by Tasmanian Governor Peter Underwood.

“I would like to convey my deep concern for all those who have been affected by the devastating bushfires that have caused widespread destruction across Tasmania,” she said.

“I send my sympathy to those people who have lost their homes or livelihoods in the fires, and offer my support and admiration for the firefighters, volunteers and emergency services officers who have been working tirelessly to contain the situation.”

In a separate message, Mr Underwood praised the camaraderie on display over the past few days.

“I am confident that all Tasmanians will rally around those stricken and displaced and willingly give them support and encouragement,” he said.

“We already have seen evidence of this spirit in the tireless work of the firefighters.

“To those who have suffered so badly in these fires, I say, we Tasmanians will rally to your aid; have courage.”

Recreational and commercial vessels were used to bring in thousands of meals and other essential supplies, and to evacuate people.

Reinforcements arrive as community rallies

A crew of 65 Victorian firefighters was expected to arrive in Tasmania yesterday, while NSW sent an expert Rural Fire Service team to help document fire damage.

Property losses on the Tasman Peninsula have been significant, with 30 per cent of the buildings in the small community of Dunalley destroyed, including the school and police station.

At Connellys Marsh, 40 per cent of the buildings are gone, along with three houses at Copping and several at Primrose Sands.

Twenty houses have been lost around Murdunna and there are reports of more at Eaglehawk Neck.

As stunned residents examined the damage, the human stories emerged from a day of horror.

Some were cut off by the speed with the fires spread and fought alone to save their homes.

Others were saved by neighbours or by the heroic efforts of fire crews or waterbombing aircraft turning up in the nick of time. Or luck.

There were tears and trauma, but overwhelmingly a sense of optimism and community and gratitude that things weren’t worse.

Chief officer Mike Brown said Friday’s high winds and 42-degree record temperatures matched conditions on the day of the state’s 1967 bushfire disaster and it was very fortunate none had died.

”The conditions of yesterday were comparable with that terrible day and on that day we lost 2000 homes and 62 lives, so I think it speaks volumes for the really hard work that was done yesterday and our more advanced operational and warning systems that we are able to use,” he said.

Thousands of people remain displaced, sheltering in refuges and or with family and friends, many not knowing if their homes had survived the fires.

The bushfire that started at Forcett laid waste to town, destroying over 30 per cent of the town’s buildings – including its school, its police station and its bakery.

Dunalley was a ghost town yesterday, with around 100 people who remained gathered at the local pub.

Twenty homes were destroyed at Murdunna, with about 40 per cent of the structures in Connellys Marsh also burnt down, along with homes in Copping, Boomer Bay, Dodges Ferry and Primrose Sands.

At least 12 properties had also been destroyed by the bushfire near Bicheno, which yesterday was downgraded to an ‘advice alert’.

The fire at lake Repulse in the Derwent Valley slowed down overnight and has been downgraded to a watch and act alert level.

Search teams were yesterday investigating the ruins of every destroyed and damaged home to ensure no one had died. Until every property has been checked, people would not be allowed to return to their homes.

Yesterday afternoon fire affected areas on the Tasman Peninsula were declared a Serious Incident Site by police for public safety, security of evacuated homes and to preserve evidence.

Acting Commissioner Tilyard said Aurora and Department of Infrastructure, Energy and Resources workers had been working to remove power lines and trees from the Arthur Highway in an effort to allow the home to be reopened.

”We’re hopeful of, if not opening the highway fully, at some point in the near future at least having some form of escorted access for people particularly coming off the Tasman peninsula during the day,” he said.

Mr Tilyard said he was confident most people sheltering at Nubeena who wanted to leave the peninsula would have been evacuated by boat by last night.

An estimated 2000 people sheltered at the community refuge centre at Nubeena amd 600 people at Port Arthur.

On Friday night and throughout yesterday tourist cruise boats, ferries and private vessels picked up people stranded at Nubeena and took them to Hobart.

A boat arrived at Dodges Ferry yesterday morning carrying 3000 meals, fuel, bottled water and ambulance and other health workers.

The team headed to Nubeena where they distributed supplies and aid to people around the area.

”There’s a great sense of community out there, people are helping each other and coming together as happens in these circumstances,” Acting Commissioner Tilyard said.

Acting Commissioner Tilyard could not confirm when residents in affected areas would be allowed to return to their homes to assess the damage.

He said power outages had occurred across the Tasman Peninsula. This was affecting communication between people in the area and their loved ones elsewhere.

”There are certainly many many residences and areas that do not have power and people with mobile phones some of them have found that their batteries would have run out and they have no capacity to (charge their phones),” he said.

People unable to contact their loved ones can call a police hotline. Acting Premier Green, who took a helicopter flight over burnt areas of the Tasman Peninsula yesterday afternoon, said it was a devastating sight.

”It’s fair to say that (Friday) must have been a terrible experience for those people living on the Peninsula and surrounding areas,” he said.

Mr Green said as uncontrolled bushfires were still burning, preserving life was still the authorities’ main focus.

”People must put in place their fire plans,” he said.

The fire at Bicheno is thought to have been started by a lighting strike and the fire at Lake Repulse was thought to have been started by a camp fire.

The cause of the Forcett fire is being investigated, but so far there is not evidence that it was deliberately lit.

with Matt Smith, Blair Richards, David Killick

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