Australia is providing financial aid and sending extra firefighters to the island state of Tasmania after wildfires forced thousands of residents to flee from their homes amid a record heatwave.
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, according to a statement from the office of Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The funds will be available in the coming days, Gillard said.
The fires in Tasmania, about 240 kilometers (150 miles) off the southeast coast of the Australian mainland, destroyed more than 100 properties and may have caused some deaths, state police said today. Residents in Tasmania sought refuge on boats, beaches and other sites including the former convict settlement of Port Arthur, now a tourist destination.
Crews also battled fires in Victoria and South Australia states as parts of Australia recorded temperatures higher than 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), the most wide- ranging heatwave since 2001, according to the weather bureau. Temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius will continue in South Australia and Victoria next week, weather forecasters said.
“This is a tragic time for those who have suffered loss in the devastating Tasmanian bushfires,” Gillard said in her statement yesterday. 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. The worst fires in the nation’s history, the so-called Black Saturday blazes, killed 173 people as they swept through 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. More than 1,000 residents have been sent by boat from the Tasman Peninsula to the state capital, Hobart, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reports.
While Tasmania Police hasn’t confirmed any deaths, it has “grave concerns” about a small number of people reported missing, Scott Tilyard, acting police commissioner, said today 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 90 kilometers southeast of Hobart, while as many as 2,000 were sent to the nearby town of Nubeena, according to information yesterday from the Tasmanian police.
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.
The Insurance Council of Australia called the southeast Tasmanian wildfires a catastrophe for the island state. The industry group said in a statement yesterday on its website that it’s too early to estimate the cost of the damage.
Temperatures have cooled, helping crews fight the fires, and the Tasmanian Fire Service has lifted emergency warnings for the state, its website shows. The temperature in Hobart, which hit a record 41.8 degrees on Jan. 4, reached a high of 26 degrees today, the weather bureau said.
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 today in a statement.
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