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Police begin grim search for fire victims

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Andrew Darby, Hobart and Adrian Lowe

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Fires devastate Tasmania

Residents in Dunalley speak of the devastating blaze that gutted much of the town while crews continue to battle fires across the state.

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The Tasmanian bushfires are still fatality-free after a police search of one of the state’s worst-hit towns.

It is still far too early to confirm that that is not the case. But we have to brace ourselves for the fact we may locate one or more deceased. 

Police searched 335 properties in and near Dunalley, a village on the state’s east coast, but have not found any bodies.

Burnt houses at Dunalley.

Burnt houses at Dunalley. Photo: Peter Mathew

In a statement, Tasmanian police said they would search south of the town in Murdunna and Sommers Bay later on Monday.

But many people are still unaccounted for, the statement said, and police urged people to register details with the Red Cross or the National Registration and Inquiry Service so that police could ensure they know where to focus.

The grim task comes as fire authorities warn bushfires that have ravaged the south-east of the state could flare up again as more warm weather hits.

Burnt houses at Dunalley on the east coast of Tasmania after a bushfire ravaged the town. Click for more photos

Dunalley

More than 100 properties went up in Dunalley and nearby communities. The hills were black, vegetation scorched to the sea. And the threat remained. Photo: Peter Mathew

Above-average temperatures are expected with Hobart forecast to reach 29 degrees and Launceston 30.

More than 100 buildings have been destroyed by the fires, which continue to burn on the Tasman Peninsula and, while there have been no confirmed deaths, police say they have fears for a number of people. On Sunday night, the Tasmanian Fire Service said a blaze was threatening the Tasman Peninsula waterside town of Taranna.

Local resident Peter Wilson said he had spent hours hosing the house down and was watching bulldozers build containment lines, and helicopters overhead.

''At the moment it just depends on what the weather does,'' Mr Wilson said.

Acting Police Commissioner Scott Tilyard said searchers had scoured burnt-out homes in the worst hit towns of Dunalley, Boomer Bay and Bream Creek without finding any bodies, but the community still needed to brace for possible deaths.

''I am fearful that someone may have died in this fire,'' Mr Tilyard said.

''It is still far too early to confirm that that is not the case. But we have to brace ourselves for the fact we may locate one or more deceased.''

He said police teams were checking about eight properties an hour.

''A lot of premises need to be checked. Until we've had the opportunity to check every one of those locations we won't be in a position to confirm there have been no deaths.''

Chief fire officer Mike Brown said crews were having trouble accessing parts of the Tasman Peninsula to bring the Forcett fire under control.

Mr Brown said lessons had been learnt from Victoria's 2009 Black Saturday fires, which killed 173.

Apart from pre-season preparation, he said there was much more awareness of the dangers of bushfires. ''The other thing these days is the notification about going to community fire refuges, leaving and leaving early … and we've had a very good take-up on alerts that have gone out,'' he said.

''People have responded very well. That, as much as really good firefighting effort, has eliminated or at least minimised the chance of injury to the community, and to firefighters.''

Prime Minister Julia Gillard will visit the scene on Monday, after federal and state governments announced aid packages through Centrelink for people affected by the fires. Emergency Management Minister Nicola Roxon said the government had made disaster relief funding of up to $1000 per person available to Tasmanians affected by bushfires.

The Red Cross has also launched an appeal to help survivors. More than 1000 people were evacuated from the Tasman Peninsula to Hobart via boat.

Hundreds more have sought refuge with relatives and in evacuation centres across the region, including at the Port Arthur historic site.

Tasmanian fire authorities have defended their choice of aircraft to fight the bushfire, with much bigger helicopters idle on the mainland.

About midday, the Arthur Highway remained closed and the fire there was active and uncontrolled.

Police do not believe that any of the fires in Tasmania were deliberately lit.

With AAP

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