Survivors of the wildfires, now in what may be a short reprieve, are telling stories of swirling flames, toxic fumes and desperate escapes.
COOMA, Australia – While record temperatures across southern Australia cooled Wednesday, survivors told harrowing stories of swirling flames, toxic fumes and desperate escapes.
Tim Holmes fled his burning home near Dunalley Friday with his wife Tammy and five grandchildren, aged 2 to 11, and took shelter in the sea beneath a wooden jetty.
"The difficulty was there was so much smoke and embers and there was probably 200 millimeters to 300 millimeters (8 to 12 inches) of air above the water," Holmes told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television Monday.
"So we were all just heads, water up to our chins just trying to breathe because it was just – the atmosphere was so incredibly toxic," he added.
No deaths have been reported from the wildfires, although around 100 people haven't been accounted for since last week when a blaze destroyed about 90 homes in the Tasmanian town of Dunalley, east of the state capital of Hobart. Police spokeswoman Lisa Stingel said Wednesday it was likely most of those people simply haven't checked in with officials.
Wednesday’s lower temperatures decreased the danger from scores of raging wildfires. Cooler conditions brought relief to firefighters, who were battling roughly 200 fires across Australia's southeast, and gave them the chance to build earth breaks to try to contain the blazes.
But the cooling is likely to provide only a brief reprieve from the summer’s extreme heat. The risk from fire was expected to increase later in the week as temperatures again rise.
Australia had its hottest day on record Monday with a nationwide average of 104.59 degrees F, narrowly breaking a 1972 record of 104.31 F. Tuesday was the third hottest day at 104.2 F. Four of Australia's hottest 10 days on record have been in 2013.
"There's little doubt that this is a very, very extreme heat wave event," said David Jones, manager of climate monitoring and prediction at the Bureau of Meteorology.
"If you look at its extent, its duration, its intensity, it is arguably the most significant in Australia's history," he added.
AP Photo: Tim Holmes, Holmes Family
The fires have been most devastating in Tasmania, where at least 128 homes have been destroyed since Friday and more than 198,000 acres burned. Hundreds of people remain at two evacuation centers in the state's south.
"People have lost everything. We can't comprehend that devastation unless we are in their shoes," Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings said.
In Victoria state, north of Tasmania, a fire injured six people, destroyed nine homes and caused the evacuation of the farming community of Carngham west of the city of Ballarat, the country fire authority said.
In New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, firefighters were battling 141 fires, including 31 that had not yet been contained. Fires burning out of control near the towns of Cooma, Yass and Shoalhaven were the most concerning.
Wildfires are common during the Australian summer. Fires in February 2009 killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes in Victoria.
Jones, the meteorologist, said the current heat wave was a progression from the last four months of 2012, which were the hottest September-to-December period on record.
With Wednesday's cool-down in southern Australia, the national capital, Canberra, dropped from a high of 97 F Tuesday to 82 F, and Sydney dropped from 109 F to 73 F.
Jones expected that Wednesday would also rank among Australia's hottest days when the national temperatures are calculated. That's because the extreme heat has shifted from the heavier populated south to northern and central Australia.
The bureau forecast above-average temperatures for the remainder of the summer, compounding the fire danger created by a lack of rain across central and southern Australia over the past six months.
"It is going to be very challenging," Jones said of the wildfire danger.
The U.S. government announced Tuesday that 2012 had been the United States' hottest year on record.
A brutal combination of a widespread drought linked to a La Niña weather event and a mostly absent winter pushed the average annual U.S. temperature last year up 1.08 F above the previous record set in 1998 to 55.32 F.
The same La Niña brought flooding rains to much of Australia in the cool first half of 2012. The second half was dry and hot, ending the year with a daily temperature 0.2 F above the daily average of 71.26 F.
Associated Press writer Kristen Gelineau in Sydney contributed to this report.