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Wildfires tear through Tasmania

Australia's heatwave is devastating its southern island

Thousands of people have been evacuated and hundreds of homes destroyed as wildfires continue to tear across Tasmania. Flames devouring trees, scrub and communities, and a heatwave which has pushed the temperature beyond 41C, have turned the island state into a furnace fanned by brisk and unruly northerly winds.

Common sense tells even a visiting Briton that these fires are not to be trifled with. So does history: all who live and visit here are well aware that 173 Australians died in the fires that struck Victoria four years ago. But nothing prepares you for being caught in the jaws of these flames. The fear here has to be experienced to be believed.

On Friday, my husband and I drove with our two-year-old daughter to a tourist precinct of log cabins at the family-friendly resort of Bicheno Bay, two hours north-east of Hobart, the island's capital. By the time we arrived, the weather had soared from that of a mild Tasmanian summer to a stifling 35C. While we rejoiced by the pool, with our lilos and sunloungers, unconcerned by a cloud of smoke creeping in from the south, locals prepared for the worst. "It is the smell we wait for," reflects a local resident, Christine Vaultier.

Sure enough, the first whiff of danger came in wafts of bonfire-like smoke. By nightfall, as winds whipped around our cabin, sending branches thrashing on to the roof, we had been given the drill. The wildfires, often started by discarded cigarettes, pyromaniacs (apparently, a common cause) or, most likely, lightning, had already started. In case the course of the flames should change, putting us in direct danger, the resort manager would drive around honking his car horn. At this point, we should convene by the local school and await further instruction. By this time, the warning was that the flames in the area were "unpredictable" and "uncontrollable".

At 2am, we awoke to the rich smell of the furnace drifting in from the hills though the nets of our windows. In every direction the horizon was thick with smoke. After not much sleep, we were informed to leave unless we intended to "stay and defend", a practice that has gone out of fashion since the dramatic loss of life three years ago on the mainland.

Driving back to Hobart, we passed several cyclists going in the other direction with seemingly no idea that they were moving straight into the course of danger, as well as several smaller fires, and a utility vehicle full of charred sheep which had been caught in the blaze. No one could assure us that the fires wouldn't cross our path. Here, we were told, you keep on driving, never sure of where or whether you'll be safe. There is no alternative; the advice over the radio was "if you're going to leave, leave now".

We were lucky to have that option. Others didn't.

Hundreds of tourists visiting the renowned site of Port Arthur were evacuated by boat as about 100 buildings were destroyed in and around the town of Dunalley, a small fishing village east of Hobart, just one of several areas affected by the blaze, which has torn across more than 15,000 hectares.

Last night, about 600 people were braced to spend a second night of terror with two major blazes threatening more homes and businesses. There were 20 fires around the state across the weekend. The biggest started at Forcett, spread to Dunalley, and cut off the Tasman peninsula, forcing the evacuation of up to 2,000 people. The destruction in Dunalley is appalling. Some 40 per cent of the town has been laid to waste, including the town's school, police station and a bakery.

Ike Kelly, owner of a Dunalley sawmill which was completely gutted by the blaze, told ABC News: "It's destroyed $4m or $5m worth of business. Fifty years of my life, gone." A Dunalley resident, Tony Young, whose home was lost, said: "The trees just went off. They were like firecrackers – 20, 30 feet high, the flames. I'm looking out the window now ... and the flames across the road, at the house, there's a big boat in there and that's just on fire. The gas cylinders are screaming, and the temperature outside would be 70C. It'd burn your face – it's that hot – if you step outside the building."

A man described only as David, from Primrose Sands near Dunalley, took refuge on a boat offshore and told ABC Hobart it had been an "unbelievable" experience.

"The wind has turned to the south-west which is absolutely fantastic for us down here. It got pretty bad here about 45 minutes ago," he said. "We had the winds blowing from the north-west and they came down over the hill into Susan's Bay, right down to the beach and there was just devastation. The sky was scarlet... It burnt right to the waterline. It was unbelievable. I, unfortunately, had to take a gentleman down to Dunalley. I could not believe it, it was so dark. I felt for the people in Dunalley."

Fire has spread south of Murdunna and has been spotted as far as Taranna, and still has active fire edges back to Forcett and Dodges Ferry. Communities have been pulling together with calls for donations of clothes and bedding. Fuel, water and health workers have been sent into the area. So far, there have been no confirmed deaths, a seeming miracle which one hopes holds good in the coming days.