Australia bushfires: Thousands stranded in Tasmania

Much of Australia is experiencing a heatwave, as Nick Bryant reports

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Rescue teams in the Australian state of Tasmania are searching for missing people after bushfires swept the island.

Thousands of people have been stranded and at least 100 homes destroyed.

Much of Australia is experiencing a heatwave, and temperatures in the Tasmanian state capital Hobart earlier reached a record high of 41C.

A fall in temperatures and easing wind speeds are expected to help fire crews still battling several major fires.

But thousands remain in evacuation centres as dozens of fires continue to burn out of control.

The BBC's Nick Bryant in Sydney says large swathes of south-east Australia are suffering from the worst fire conditions since the Black Saturday disaster almost four years ago, when 173 people in rural Victoria lost their lives.

He says there has been a combination of a record-breaking heatwave, high winds and drought, with Tasmania by far the worst hit.

'Engulfed'

On the island, at least 100 properties have been destroyed, a large number in the small community of Dunalley, east of Hobart, where the police station and school were burned down.

Map

One resident of Dunalley told ABC radio: "All I could do was drive the car out of the shed, drive across the other side of the road and stand back and look at the whole place just being engulfed in flames, just like a movie."

Some resident said they had to dive into a canal in the centre of the town to protect themselves against a wall of flame.

Others spoke of flames that were 30ft (9m) high, and trees that looked like firecrackers.

The main road to the Tasman Peninsula, south-east of Hobart, has been cut off, stranding thousands of people, many of them tourists in the historic site of Port Arthur.

Some people sought refuge on the beaches.

A flotilla of local vessels has been used to bring in essential supplies and evacuate those deemed most at risk.

Acting Police Commissioner Scott Tilyard said it had been ''a long night for many people but the main thing is that they have been safe".

Chief Officer Mike Brown, of the Tasmanian Fire Service, said: "Clearly, it's going to take a long time and a lot of work to properly contain these fires."

Prime Minister Julia Gillard urged people to look after their personal safety.

She told ABC: ''My message is there's only one you. Everything else in life, at the end of the day, no matter how precious, can be replaced."

She added: "It's a very Australian thing to fear and also to understand the devastation of bushfire."

Much of southern Australia remains under intense heat.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that a German woman died while walking in 40-degree temperatures in Cape Otway, Victoria.

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