Milder temperatures ease Australian wildfire fears


By Rod McGuirk, AP

COOMA, Australia–Record temperatures across southern Australia cooled Wednesday, reducing the danger from scores of raging wildfires but likely bringing only a brief reprieve from the summer’s extreme heat and fire risk.

Australia had its hottest day on record Monday with a nationwide average of 40.33 degrees Celsius (104.59 degrees Fahrenheit), narrowly breaking a 1972 record of 40.17 C (104.31 F). Tuesday was the third hottest day at 40.11 C (104.20 F). Four of Australia’s hottest 10 days on record have been in 2013.

“There’s little doubt that this is a very, very extreme heat wave event,” said David Jones, manager of climate monitoring and prediction at the Bureau of Meteorology.

“If you look at its extent, its duration, its intensity, it is arguably the most significant in Australia’s history,” he added.

Cooler conditions brought relief to firefighters, who were battling around 200 fires across Australia’s southeast, and gave them the chance to build earth breaks to try to contain the blazes. The risk from fire was expected to increase later in the week as temperatures again rise.

No deaths have been reported from the wildfires, although around 100 people haven’t been accounted for since last week when a blaze destroyed around 90 homes in the Tasmanian town of Dunalley, east of the state capital of Hobart. On Wednesday, police spokeswoman Lisa Stingel said it was likely most of those people simply haven’t checked in with officials.

Survivors have told stories of swirling flames, toxic fumes and desperate escapes.

Tim Holmes fled his burning home near Dunalley on Friday with his wife Tammy and five grandchildren, aged 2 to 11, and took shelter in the sea beneath a wooden jetty.

“The difficulty was there was so much smoke and embers and there was probably 200 millimeters to 300 millimeters (8 to 12 inches) of air above the water,” Holmes told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television on Monday.

“So we were all just heads; water up to our chins just trying to breathe because it was just — the atmosphere was so incredibly toxic,” he added.

The fires have been most devastating in Tasmania, where at least 128 homes have been destroyed since Friday and more than 80,000 hectares (198,000 acres) burned. Hundreds of people remain at two evacuation centers in the state’s south.

“People have lost everything. We can’t comprehend that devastation unless we are in their shoes,” Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings said.