Australian Wildfires Force Tasmanians to Boats Amid Heatwave

Wildfires in Australia’s island state of Tasmania destroyed as many as 100 buildings and homes, forcing residents to seek refuge on boats and at the former convict settlement of Port Arthur.

About 700 people have been sheltered at the site of the historic penal colony, now a tourist destination about 90 kilometers (56 miles) southeast of the state capital, Hobart, while as many as 2,000 have fled to the nearby town of Nubeena, according to the Tasmania police.

As much as 80 percent of the Australian continent was affected by temperatures higher than 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) yesterday, the most wide-ranging heatwave since 2001, the weather bureau said. Australia’s hot, dry climate makes bush fires a major risk in the southern hemisphere’s summer months.

“The focus of course is on still fighting the fires,” Prime Minister Julia Gillard said today in an interview on Channel 9 television. “We’ll keep working with the state government and local authorities to support communities.”

While temperatures have cooled, fires are still burning, with the Tasmanian Fire Service today issuing an emergency warning for a blaze along the Tasman Highway on the east coast near the town of Bicheno.

The worst fires in Australian history, the so-called Black Saturday blazes, killed 173 people as they swept through rural parts of Victoria state in February 2009.

Battled Wildfires

Crews also battled wildfires in Victoria and South Australia states. In Tasmania, fires destroyed about 30 percent of the buildings in the 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, according to the police. More than 20 homes were destroyed in the Murdunna area north of Port Arthur, police said.

At least 100 properties were destroyed in Tasmania as hundreds of people took shelter on beaches and in boats on the water, according to reports today by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. The Tasmania police haven’t confirmed any reports of deaths from the fires, according to the statement.

The temperature in Hobart reached a high of 21 degrees Celsius today after hitting a record 41.8 degrees yesterday, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. By contrast, Sydney, Australia’s most populous city, rose to a high of 26.6 degrees yesterday and reached 29 degrees today.

Crops in Australia, last year’s second-biggest wheat exporter, may escape the worst of the heatwave. Harvesting of winter crops including wheat, barley and canola is almost complete in southern New South Wales and Victoria, GrainCorp Ltd., eastern Australia’s largest grain handler, said Dec. 24. The harvest is virtually complete across most of South Australia, according to Viterra Inc.

The Insurance Council of Australia, an industry group, called the southeast Tasmanian wildfires a catastrophe and said in a statement on its website that it’s too early to estimate the cost of the damage.

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