By Andrew Fraser
A FAMILY of four who were clinging for their lives to a tree yesterday above raging floodwaters west of Brisbane were winched to safety in a helicopter.
The family, including two children aged three and four, had escaped from their car, which was washed away in waters about 15km from Leyburn, near Toowoomba, and climbed a tree to escape. When rescued, they were suffering from hypothermia.
Authorities say they are growing frustrated with the increasing number of rescues as people ignore warnings to avoid driving through and swimming in floodwaters.
“Twenty people have been rescued by swiftwater crews in the past two days, and 50 in the past week, and there have been five deaths in the past month,” Queensland Deputy Premier Paul Lucas said yesterday.
The town of Chinchilla, northwest of Toowoomba, was swept by the worst floods in at least 50 years yesterday and the threat of flooding further downstream built as the water moved east and west. Some of Queensland’s coalmining regions are swamped. Waters are now moving west along the Condamine River and will flow next month into the Murray-Darling system in western NSW.
Chinchilla, where floods are 6.7m high in parts, is cut off in all directions. Publican Justin Byrne said there was water 1.5m high in one of his pubs, the Club Hotel.
The floodwaters will probably flow into the Fitzroy River and are expected to threaten the coastal city of Rockhampton later this week.
The Queensland floods capped a day of wild weather across the nation, with snow on Mount Wellington in Hobart, a heatwave in Perth and floods and heavy rain at Eugowra in central-west NSW.
As residents of Queensland and NSW towns sandbagged their homes to protect them from rising waters, Perth residents sought respite from 40C heat by flocking to the beach, only to be forced out of the water by shark sightings.
The weather situation in Queensland may become more serious in coming days.
Authorities are monitoring a low-pressure system in the Gulf of Carpentaria that could turn into a cyclone and is moving east towards Cape York. Bureau of Meteorology hydrologist Jess Carey said the major flooding alerts for the next 24 hours were in Chinchilla, Dalby, Warwick and further north at Theodore and Rockhampton.
At Dalby, flood levels were expected to reach 4m early today.
Further south, there is major flooding at Warwick, where the river has risen to 7m and heavy rain is continuing.
In Chinchilla, Western Downs Mayor Ray Brown said the council was ready to accommodate residents if the waters threatened houses.
Chinchilla is on Charley’s Creek, which flows into the Condamine River; all towns along the Condamine — including Warwick, St George and Surat — were experiencing low-level flooding yesterday.
Several towns were cut off by road, and the New England Highway, the main inland road between Brisbane and Sydney, was cut in several places.
Emergency services and police were kept busy by a stream of calls, with several families being winched to safety from the roofs of their houses.
The waters from the eastern parts of the Darling Downs flows west into the Balonne River and then into NSW and the Culgoa, Bokhara and Birrie rivers, which flow into the Barwon River then the Murray-Darling Basin.
There are several flood warnings for these rivers, and NSW authorities expect floods through a combination of rain falling over these areas plus the water coming down from Queensland.
“What’s happening in Queensland now will be flowing down into NSW right up till the end of January,” said Fiona Johnson of the NSW weather bureau.
The Fairbairn Dam at Emerald was full, with floodwaters going 2m over the spillway, pushing more water into the Nogoa River.
The Dawson, Nogoa and two other rivers all flow into the Fitzroy and the central Queensland city of Rockhampton, on the river, is expected to face big floods later this week. Rockhampton Mayor Brad Carter said up to 200 homes could be affected.
Rain continued to fall in north Queensland after tropical cyclone Tasha had made landfall early on Christmas Day, but they were moderate falls, with only low-level flooding.
In NSW, rain surged through already swollen rivers, again flooding towns in the central west and isolating 800 people in the northeast.
In the town of Eugowra, near Orange, about a dozen houses were evacuated, and several businesses flooded.
NSW State Emergency Services spokesman Phil Campbell said while the sun had come out in the central west and it appeared the immediate danger in that area was diminishing, the next big threat lay in the state’s northeast. About 500 people in Bonalbo and 300 in Urbenville had been isolated by floodwaters.
Flood warnings were in force for the Brunswick, Tweed and Richmond rivers in the northeast.
In Perth, swimmers trying to escape the worst of a baking hot 40C day were ordered out of the water after three sharks were spotted cruising off local beaches.
Additional reporting: Ean Higgins, Nicolas Perpitch, AAP