Thousands of people across Tasmania have been displaced as a result of a number of devastating bushfires, with many losing their homes and properties. Local authorities say that more than 250 homes and other buildings, including a school in the small town of Dunalley, have been destroyed in the fires.
While dozens of people are unaccounted for, there are no confirmed deaths at this time.
Across the state, more than 100 Australian Red Cross volunteers and staff have been providing registration services and support to people who have been forced to flee their homes. Around 1,300 people are using the organization’s National Registration and Inquiry System, which helps to reconnect family and friends affected by the disaster.
Dianne White and John Hutton said they were thankful to have escaped a major Tasmanian bushfire east of Hobart with their lives.
Sitting in the Sorell Relief Centre after registering with the Red Cross, Dianne said she was anxious to get news of her brother, who she had not been able to contact. “He has not been really well and he would not leave his farm. I came over for Christmas to be with my brother who lives in Taranna,” she said.
Dianne had a flight booked to return from the Tasman Peninsula to her home in Melbourne, when she found she was stuck and surrounded by fire. “The fires blocked us off, there was smoke everywhere and fire was coming over the ridge.”
John said the fires, and the emergency response, were severely affected by the changing winds, and his home was also threatened by another fire west of Hobart.
In areas where the fires were most fierce, the confusion and lack of communication made the experience especially terrifying. “We didn’t have any phones or power. We could barely speak because the helicopters kept on coming around and dumping the water,” Dianne said.
Adding to the nightmare, Dianne and her friend John both have serious health concerns. “I got extremely sick and was having chest pains and my asthma attack wouldn’t go away. We had both run out of medication,” John said.
They made it to a medical clinic in Nubeena and John was able to receive vital medical treatment. “As soon as I could get some medication and slow my heart down, I was alright.”
John marveled at the community spirit shown by local doctors and volunteers who staffed the medical centre. “These girls worked voluntarily with no lights, no power, to save both my life and Dianne’s,” he said.
In addition to medical services, the Red Cross is also attempting to reunite people affected by the fires with their families. A service that is vital when communications are affected by disaster. Dianne said she felt this first hand when she was disconnected while speaking on the phone with her daughter. She was still in the area threatened by fire. “I heard the fear and horror in their voices and my daughter was crying. She was hysterical,” she said.
By Anthony Balmain, Australian Red Cross
Main photo: Red Cross volunteer Odile Glen, talks to Tasmanian Premier, Lara Giddings and Red Cross Executive Director Tasmania, Ian Burke about the work of Red Cross at the Sorell Relief Centre. Australian Red Cross/Antony Balmain