Aussie family flees "tornadoes of fire"
In this Jan. 4, 2013, photo provided by the Holmes family, Tammy Holmes, second from left, and her grandchildren, two-year-old Charlotte Walker, left, four-year-old Esther Walker, third from left, nine-year-old Liam Walker, eleven-year-old Matilda, second from right, and six-year-old Caleb Walker, right, take refuge under a jetty as a wildfire rages near-by in the Tasmanian town of Dunalley, east of the state capital of Hobart, Australia. / AP Photo/Holmes Family, Tim Holmes
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.
Firefighters have been battling around 200 blazes across the country's southeast and while no deaths have been reported, there are around 100 people unaccounted for since around 90 homes went up in flames in the Tasmanian town of Dunalley last week.
The drama of the blaze in Dunalley was captured by Tim Holmes, who took a picture of his wife and their five grandchildren clinging to a jetty as "tornadoes of fire" quickly encroached on the family's property last Friday.
"We saw tornadoes of fire just coming across towards us and the next thing we knew everything was on fire, everywhere all around us," Holmes told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Wildfires rage across Australia
Holmes was looking after his grandchildren, ages 2 to 11, for his daughter, Bonnie Walker, who was out of town attending a funeral. On her way home, she found the roads blocked.
"We just waited by the phone and received a message ... to say that mum and dad had evacuated, that they were surrounded by fire, and could we pray. So I braced myself to lose my children and my parents," Walker told the network.
Shortly after, Holmes sent his daughter an image of the family seeking refuge in the water, where they would remain for another three hours.
"We were relying on the jetty really. And the difficulty was, there was so much smoke and ember and there was only about probably 200mm to 300mm (around 8 to 12 inches) of air above the water. 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," Holmes said.
Holmes eventually ferried the family away from the smoke-filled air on a dinghy.
The fires have been most devastating in Tasmania, where at least 128 homes have been destroyed since Friday and more than 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.
In Victoria state, north of Tasmania, a fire injured six people, destroyed nine homes and caused the evacuation of the farming community of Carngham west of the city of Ballarat, the Country Fire Authority said.
In New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, firefighters were battling 141 fires, including 31 that had not yet been contained. Fires burning out of control near the towns of Cooma, Yass and Shoalhaven were the most concerning.
Wildfires are common during the Australian summer. Fires in February 2009 killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes in Victoria.
Meanwhile, Australia had its hottest day on record Monday with a nationwide average of 104.59 degrees Fahrenheit, narrowly breaking a 1972 record of 104.31 F. Tuesday was the third hottest day at 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.
Jones said the current heat wave conditions were a progression of the last four months of 2012, which were the hottest September-December period on record.
With Wednesday's cool-down in southern Australia, the national capital, Canberra, dropped from a high of 97 F on Tuesday to 82 F and Sydney dropped from 109 F to 73 F.
Jones expected that Wednesday would also rank among Australia's hottest days when the national temperatures are calculated. That's because the extreme heat has shifted from the heavier populated south to northern and central Australia.
The bureau forecast above average temperatures for the remainder of summer, compounding the fire danger created by a lack of rain across central and southern Australia over the past six months.
"It is going to be very challenging," Jones said of the wildfire danger.
The U.S. government announced on Tuesday that 2012 had been the United States' hottest year on record.
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