Tasmanian family recounts dramatic escape

AFP-JIJI

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

Tim and Tammy Holmes were minding their daughter’s five children — ranging in age from 11 to as young as 2 — when an inferno that destroyed more than 100 homes on Australia’s southern island of Tasmania tore toward their property.

“We saw tornadoes of fire just coming across toward us and the next thing we knew everything was on fire, everywhere all around us,” 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 haven’t learned 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 200 mm to 300 mm of air above the water,” said Holmes. “So we were all just . . . 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 “just exploding all over the place” in flames 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 that 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 seawater. We swam the day before and it was cold,” said Walker. “I knew that would be a challenge, to keep three nonswimmers above water.”

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.

“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,” Walker said.