Fire ravages Tasmania

By Nigel Tapp

Before the beginning of last month, not many people in Australia had heard of the tiny Southern Tasmanian town of Dunalley. Even fewer would have been able to find it on a map.

But over 24 hours on 4 January, most Australians had witnessed horrifying images of a ferocious fire storm which ripped through the sleepy fishing village, which acts as the gateway to the Tasman Peninsula.

More than 100 homes, the local school, a large family-owned sawmill and a much-loved bakery were destroyed in the blaze; along with the treasured possessions of dozens of families. While that may not seem a large number, only 45 homes in the town survived the inferno.

Many families had to wait a week before it was safe for them to return and see for themselves the extent of the damage.

What they witnessed when allowed back on 11 January was unimaginable destruction. Now the first steps of what will be a long recovery process have begun.

Retired Uniting Church minister Rev David Parker joined the first convoy allowed in, only 72 hours after the fire had been at its most severe.

Mr Parker described the damage to the town as “incredible”.

“People literally witnessed their homes disappear in front of their eyes,” he said.

Bushfires are not uncommon in Tasmania but what set the Dunalley blaze apart – one of several in the area at the beginning of January – was the speed with which it engulfed the town.

Local tourism operator Tim Holmes described “a tornado of flames” descending on his property in the aftermath of the blaze which, thankfully, did not claim any lives.

Another resident, Bryan Webster, described a “tsunami of fire”.

“That is the closest I have been to hell,” he said as he picked through the rubble which was once his home.

The only thing which moved faster than the fire was the response of Tasmanians, and other Australians, to the disaster.
Within hours, evacuation centres – including one which housed more than 2000 people and another with in excess of 600 at the height of the fire storm – were established.

Food appeals were initiated, boat owners took to the water to ferry supplies into the area and money was donated from far and wide. Even the British royal family chipped in.

Uniting Aged Care (UAC) felt the Tasman Peninsula fires first-hand. One employee lost their home and several others were trapped in the area for a week. UAC moved quickly to support its own. It established a tax deductable cash assistance fund, ensured special leave for staff and provided counselling.

UnitingCare Tasmania and the Presbytery of Tasmania began developing plans immediately to support those affected, particularly in the long-term while still acting on initial needs.

Church agency facilities were opened for disaster relief, including Scots Child Care which opened its doors to children of families who have been evacuated. Uniting Church ministers provided pastoral support in evacuation centres and UnitingCare allocated emergency relief money through Hobart Benevolent Society.

Frontier Services has indicated the possibility of providing a Remote Area Family Services (RAFS) team in the Tasman Peninsula area to support people in the longer term while arrangements have also been made to provide ministry support at Sorell.

The Tasmanian fire season normally lasts for about 12 weeks – from December to March – but what was a little surprising for 2012-13 was the damage wrought throughout the State in less than a week at the beginning of last month.

More than 111,000 hectares of bush and farmland were destroyed in six days in fires from as far south as the Tasman Peninsula and the Derwent Valley, to Bicheno on the east coast, George Town east of Launceston and Montumana, in the far north-west.

Stock losses throughout the state have been enormous, as has the loss of farm fencing. The amount of livestock which perished is expected to exceed 10,000.

UnitingCare supporters and members of the public are encouraged to make donations at the UnitingCare Tasmania website at https://secure.donman.net.au/client/UnitingCareTas/Donate.aspx or by calling 1800 668 426.

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