A Tasmianian family takes refuge from record wildfires in the seawater under a jetty, 8 January 2013. Tammy Holmes (second from left) and her grandchildren, (from left) Charlotte, Esther, Liam, Matilda, and Caleb, survived the bushfires that raged for three hours. Tim Holmes / AP

By Luke Harding
9 January 2013

(guardian.co.uk) – The tornadoes of fire came from two directions. They quickly engulfed the small Tasmanian fishing town of Dunally, and swept towards the home where Tim and Tammy Holmes were babysitting their five grandchildren. There was no escape. No way out. And so the family did the only thing left open to them: they ran for the water.

This extraordinary photograph shows Tammy Holmes, second from left, clutching her two small grandchildren, two-year-old Charlotte Walker, left, and four-year-old Esther Walker. Clinging precariously to a wooden jetty are Liam Walker, nine, Matilda, 11, second from right, and six-year-old Caleb Walker. Behind them are walls of flame, the sky a lurid and demonic orange.

"We saw tornadoes of fire just coming across towards us and the next thing we knew everything was on fire, everywhere all around us," Tim Holmes told Australia's ABC News. "We lost three houses and by that time I had sent Tammy … with the children to get down to the jetty because there was no other escape. We couldn't get off.

"I ended up having to run down through a wooded area on my own, where there was so much smoke and fire, I didn't know where I was. So I just kept running. There was a moment of fear that this could be very, very dangerous. But I managed to run through and get to the water's edge, which was a kind of a sanctuary."

The photograph – taken with remarkable composure by Tim Holmes – is likely to become one of the defining images of a disaster that has seen wildfires sweep south-eastern Australia. The blazes are the result of a record-breaking heatwave and strong winds. Since last week they have destroyed thousands of hectares of land and numerous properties. Among them are the pottery, craft gallery and B&B where Holmes, born in Wales, had lived on Tasmania's picturesque eastern coast since 1988. Remarkably, nobody has been killed.

Other photographs taken by Holmes show his grandchildren perched on the edge of the jetty. They are about to plunge in. He explained: "We were relying on the jetty really. And the difficulty was, there was so much smoke and embers and there was only about probably 200 to 300 millimetres of air above the water. So we were all just heads, water up to our chins just trying to breathe. The atmosphere was so incredibly toxic."

The fire raged for three hours. "Everything was on fire and it was just exploding all over the place," Holmes said. The children – three of them non-swimmers – clung on in the chilly sea. Eventually, Holmes managed to return to the shore and grab a small dinghy. He loaded in the children and his wife and then took the boat 200m out from the coast, where the air was more breathable. […]

"There's little doubt that this is a very, very extreme heatwave event," said David Jones, manager of climate monitoring and prediction at the Australia's Bureau of Meteorology.

"If you look at its extent, its duration, its intensity, it is arguably the most significant in Australia's history." [more]

Australian wildfires: clinging to life, a family defies wall of flame


A bushfire burning 8km south west of Naradhan, north of Griffith in New South Wales, 9 January 2013. AFP / NSW Rural Fire Service

By Stephanie Gardiner
10 January 2013

Firefighters have been backburning overnight to try and contain several major bushfires across NSW, taking advantage of the cool temperature before hot, windy weather sets in again.

There are 126 bushfires burning across the state, including 15 that are not contained, on Thursday morning.

Over 1000 Rural Fire Service volunteers are working, using more than 80 firefighting aircraft and 360 trucks.

RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said firefighters are trying to contain the blazes before dangerous fire conditions return on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

"When you've got more hot air dominating much of the state, which is already very dry and vegetation is highly susceptible to ignition and spread of any existing fire, that's a real challenge to firefighters," Mr Fitzsimmons told Sky News.

"We're going to be working very closely with the weather authorities to make sure we're identifying those most severe of conditions and those areas of concern.

"I expect to see more total fire bans across Friday and certainly into Saturday as these hot weather patterns dominate much of NSW." […]

Firefighters also spent the night backburning at the Cobbler Road fire, near Yass, to establish and strengthen containment lines around the blaze, which has burnt through 14,000 hectares and killed thousands of animals. [more]

Battle to contain fires before heat returns

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