Family tells of dramatic fire escape

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Sydney -

Neck-deep in seawater for three hours as the woods exploded around them, clinging to a jetty with their five grandchildren, an Australian couple have told of their dramatic escape from raging wildfires.

Tim and Tammy Holmes were minding their daughter's children - ranging in age from 11 to just two years old - when an inferno that destroyed more than 100 homes on the southern island of Tasmania tore towards their property.

“We saw tornadoes of fire just coming across towards us and the next thing we knew everything was on fire, everywhere all around us,” Tim Holmes told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

“We lost three houses and by that time I had sent Tammy... with the children to get down to the jetty because there was no other escape.”

With a wall of fire and smoke racing at them from both directions, Holmes said they managed to reach the waterfront and take refuge beneath the jetty, clutching onto three of the children who were unable to swim.

“We were relying on the jetty really. And the difficulty was, there was so much smoke and ember and there was only about probably 200mm to 300mm of air above the water,” said Holmes.

“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.”

Holmes said the fire last weekend “raged for three hours”, the surrounding woodland reduced to flames and “just exploding all over the place” as they waited in the water for the inferno to subside.

The children's mother Bonnie Walker had left town for a funeral and said when she heard that her parents had fled and their property was surrounded by flames she “braced myself to lose my children and my parents”.

Holmes sent her a message assuring her they had made it to the water with a photo attached which she said was “still quite upsetting” to look at.

“It's all of my, our, five children underneath the jetty huddled up to neck-deep sea water which is cold, we've swam the day before and it was cold,” said Walker.

“I knew that that would be a challenge, to keep three non-swimmers above water. And with only my mum and dad and our eldest daughter.”

Holmes was eventually able to wade back to shore and fetch a dinghy to take the family around the headland and away from the smoky air to safety.

Said Walker: “I spent a lot of time with good friends and prayed like I've never prayed before and I think those prayers have been answered.”

Wildfires fanned by heat and high winds also raged across Australia's southeast this week, scorching more than 350 000 hectares (865 000 acres) of land in the most populous state of New South Wales.

A cooler weather front brought some relief but firefighters were on Thursday racing to bring the blazes under control before a forecast spike in temperatures brings the risk of more infernos. - Sapa-AFP

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