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  • 9 January 2013, 19:33

Australia Bushfires: Family Clings To Jetty

A terrified Australian family clung to a jetty for more than two hours while fires raged around them.

As the flames destroyed her Tasmania home, grandmother Tammy Holmes was forced to tread water with her five young grandchildren in the sea.

Photographs taken by Mrs Holmes' husband Tim, and released on Wednesday, show two-year-old Charlotte, four-year-old Esther, Liam Walker, nine, 11-year-old Matilda and six-year-old Caleb huddled together in the water.

The children's mother, Bonnie Walker, had left them with her parents while she attended a funeral.

She said: "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."

The family eventually found a dinghy to escape the fire zone, and dragged it 300 metres to where the air was cleaner.

Mr Holmes said: "We saw tornadoes of fire just coming across towards us and the next thing we knew everything was on fire.

"I had sent Tammy ... with the children to get down to the jetty because there was no other escape, we couldn't get off."

More than 100 bushfires are still raging across southeastern Australia, following a heatwave that saw the region scorched by record temperatures.

Cooler weather has now brought some relief - but highs of 50C are forecast for the weekend.

Meteorologists have been forced to readjust their scales to accommodate the unprecedented heat.

After facing one of the highest-risk fire days in its history on Tuesday, residents in hard-hit New South Wales woke to shifting winds that caused temperatures to drop significantly.

While the mercury topped 42C in Sydney on Tuesday, it was forecast to peak at just 25C today, while the Victorian capital Melbourne was down to 20C.

The ratings on many bushfires were downgraded with none now at the "catastrophic" level which signifies fires will be uncontrollable, unpredictable and fast-moving, and evacuation the only safe option.

But NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons warned against complacency, with new fronts breaking out despite the colder weather and a total fire ban still in place.

Speaking from Bookham, a small village in Yass Shire west of Canberra where a fire has so far burnt out 16,000 hectares, he said: "It is far from over when it comes to the threat to New South Wales.

"We need to sustain the vigilance today. We are not out of the woods yet, the risk is very real and there's a long day ahead and a forecast for a return to hot conditions toward the weekend and into next week."

More than 2,000 firefighters worked through the night tackling more than 140 blazes across New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, with 30 of those uncontained.

New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell said an estimated 10,000 sheep had perished in the Yass area alone.

The state of Victoria has also been experiencing extreme conditions with four homes destroyed and six people treated for minor burns or smoke inhalation in a bushfire in the farming community of Carngham, which was evacuated.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the federal and state governments were working together in the recovery effort and to support victims.

"Firstly, it's all hands on deck fighting the fires, dealing with the emergency, and then we move into the recovery phase," she said.

No deaths have so far been reported.

While it was initially believed as many as 100 people could be missing in the southern island of Tasmania after fires razed more than 100 homes over the weekend, police said there was confusion about movements during the crisis.

"We know there have been no significant injuries, which is amazing, and we are encouraged that we haven't found any human remains at this stage," Tasmanian acting police commissioner Scott Tilyard told Sky News.

Bushfires are a fact of life in arid parts of Australia. Some 173 people perished in the 2009 Black Saturday firestorm, the nation's worst natural disaster of modern times.

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