Fears for missing residents as fire fighting continues

Fears for missing residents as fire fighting continues

Fears for missing residents as fire fighting continues

Updated 6 January 2013, 20:54 AEDT

A watch and act warning is now in place for a bushfire burning out of control on the Tasman Peninsula amid fears lives may have been lost.

Tasmanian police say about 100 people are missing and several hundred have been displaced by bushfires that have ravaged the state over the past three days.

The Tasmanian Fire Service has downgraded an emergency warning for the Forcett bushfire burning out of control south-east of Hobart but residents have been told to activate their bushfire plans.

Police fear there may have been deaths in the area where more than 100 homes have already been destroyed by the fire between Forcett and the Tasman Peninsula since Friday.

Residents of the worst-affected town of Dunalley have told of how they were forced to dive into the canal in the middle of the town to escape the wall of flames coming towards them on Friday.

Bushfire information:

Acting Police Commissioner Scott Tilyard told reporters this afternoon there are about 100 people with whom authorities have not had confirmed contact.

"That's not to say that those people necessarily have come to any harm, but obviously we can't totally eliminate that until we've had confirmed contact with those individuals," he said.

I am fearful that someone may have died in the fire. We plan as best we can, we hope for the best but we plan for the worst.

Acting Police Commissioner Scott Tilyard

"We are still concerned about people. The premises that we've been through and checked so far, we haven't found any deceased people. We hope certainly that that continues.

"We also have to brace ourselves for the fact that we may locate one or more deceased people before we end the process."

Acting Commissioner Tilyard earlier said there were grave fears for a small number of people reported missing.

"I am fearful that someone may have died in the fire," he said.

"We plan as best we can, we hope for the best but we plan for the worst."

Acting Commissioner Tilyard says police continue to search buildings in the fire devastated communities of Dunalley, Boomer Bay and Marion Bay.

"We have teams on the ground now ... going through the process of having to go door-to-door on every fire-damaged property," he said.

"Some are shacks, some are houses, some are outbuildings. [We need to confirm] there are no people who have lost their lives at that particular location.

"That does take time and needs to be done properly."

Fire threats

The Tasmania Fire Service (TFS) has downgraded the warning for the large Forcett bushfire to watch and act status.

This fire is currently affecting the communities of Taranna, Lewisham, Dunalley, Copping, Forcett, Connelly's Marsh, Dodges Ferry, Eaglehawk Neck, Primrose Sands, Murdunna, Boomers Bay, Bream Creek and Sommers Bay.

Residents are advised to activate their bushfire plans.

There is a community refuge centre at Nubeena at the Tasman Civic Centre.

Crews are also fighting a small bushfire on the Tasman Highway at Buckland, an out-of-control blaze which may affect the residents of Court Farm Road and Twamley Road.

An alert is also in place for an uncontrolled grassfire at Cawthorns Lane, Macquarie Plains.

The TFS says a watch and act alert is still active for a fire at Lake Repulse, in the Upper Derwent Valley, with firefighters battling an out-of-control blaze at Dawson Road, east of Ellendale.

Bushfires has collectively destroyed 120,000 hectares.

Another fire at Bicheno on the north-east coast has cut off access to the popular tourist area of Coles Bay on the Freycinet Peninsula, but the fire risk has been downgraded since yesterday.

Police say between 1,500-2,000 people are trapped on the Tasman Peninsula as roads to the area remain cut.

The peninsula is also without power, with about 300 power poles destroyed by bushfires and it will be at least a week before power is restored.

It is also unclear when the Port Arthur Historic site will reopen with bushfires blocking access to the tourist destination, which is accommodating about 300 people taking refuge at the site.

Tasmanian Emergency Services Minister David O'Byrne urged Tasmanians to be vigilant about the fire threat around them, warning the danger is not over.

"We need to say that whilst we hopefully will not experience those once-in-a-generation catastrophic weather conditions we faced on Friday, there isn't any decent rain ahead of us," he said.

"There are still some weather conditions, later this week, when the temperatures will rise again, with no significant rain on the horizon, which will mean that not only the existing fires, but other bushfire prone 

areas of Tasmania will be under threat.

"The message clearly is whilst we're hopefully beyond the worst of the situation of the worst of the situation of the weather and the fire, we are still in a pretty difficult circumstance here and the weather is not on our side."

Bureau of Meteorology spokesman Matthew Thomas says winds in Tasmania have dropped off, but temperatures up around 30 degrees Celsius could still impact the fire burning at Lake Repulse.

"We'll see the temperatures get up particularly about the Upper Derwent Valley, the midlands and the central north. That's where the higher temperatures will be," he said.

Mr Holloway says fire crews are working hard as warmer weather is expected to return to the Tasman Peninsula later this week.

"We're looking at some warmer weather again through on Thursday, so if we've got this window to work on these fires and get some form of control around them, we're going to take that opportunity when we can," he said.

More than 1,000 people have been evacuated by boat from the Tasman Peninsula to Hobart.

Forty firefighters from Victoria and seven air support staff from New South Wales arrived in Hobart this afternoon to relieve local firefighters.

Tasmania's chief fire officer Mike Brown says he has accepted the offer of assistance from Victorian authorities because there are busy times ahead.

Mr Brown said it was still unclear when the bushfires would be contained.

"We know we're going to have a large of fire area for quite some time," he said.

"We have a priority on containment. I can't give a figure or timeframe in which we're going to be able to contain these fires.

"It is still going to be difficult to contain those fires."

Hobart Lord Mayor Damon Thomas says City Hall is being used as an evacuation centre.

"Those people will be met by the Red Cross and other support agencies and there's a whole range of support services, including emergency accommodation," he said.

"And look there's other things like clothing because we know that some of those travellers have had a rough trip up and they want a change of gear."

Many residents are becoming frustrated that they cannot get to their homes to check the damage, but the fire service says it is important the road remains closed.

"People need to understand that there is still a very active fire burning through there and we're looking at temperatures up in the high 20s again today, with people working off those roads, as well as all the dangerous trees and those sorts of things that are falling down around the place," Mr Holloway said.

Homes lost

The town of Dunalley, east of Hobart, was worst hit by the fires on Friday.

Dunalley resident Tony Young described the inferno as locals lost their homes and the main street, including the school, was gutted.

"The trees just went off. They were like firecrackers - 20, 30 feet high, the flames," he said.

Mr Yong says he was standing in his shed when the ceiling ignited and the fire spread to engulf his home.

"All I could do was drive the car out of the shed, drive across the other side of the road and stand back and look at the whole place just being engulfed in flames, just like a movie," he said.

Fifteen homes have gone at Boomer Bay, 20 at Murdunna and about 40 per cent of the properties at Conelley's Marsh have been damaged or destroyed.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard will tour fire-ravaged Dunalley tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Federal Emergency Management Minister Nicola Roxon says the Government has activated disaster recovery payments for affected residents.

She says eligible adults can apply for up to $1000 each and $400 per child.

Ms Roxon says those funds come on top of other emergency relief being provided by the state and federal governments including money for food and temporary accommodation.

"People can lodge an application online... (or) they can talk to Centrelink personnel," she said.

"There is not a means testing of that funding but there's an eligibility requirement that is being affected by the fires... living in a local government area.

"And unfortunately I think it's likely there'll be more areas that will be effected and become eligible as those assessments are made."

The Red Cross has launched its Tasmanian Bushfire Appeal and the organisation's Ian Burke says financial assistance is the best way to help.

"We will be assembling a independent committee with the Tasmanian Government, ourselves and a considerable community input and that committee will then make some pretty quick decisions about distribution of the funds," he said.

Tasmania's peak farm lobby says it has heard reports that thousands of animals have been killed in the bushfires.

Farmers and Graziers Association spokeswoman Jan Davis says the problems for livestock may be exacerbated because farmers have lost access to their regular vets.

"There is some very detailed information available for farmers who want to make decisions about livestock management on the Department of Primary Industries website and they also have a helpline that's also got vet assistance if people need it," she said.

Tony Brennan from The St Vincent de Paul Society says there has been an overwhelming amount of clothing and household goods donated to those affected by the fires.

"People have shown up to make their donation but then realised we needed help, realised the society's volunteers are inundated and couldn't get things boxed up quickly enough," he said.

"And they could hardly get through the door, so people started to help."

News of the shattered communities in Tasmania has travelled overseas, with the Queen sending a message to those affected by the fires.

Her Majesty has expressed deep concern and sent her sympathies to those people who have lost their homes or livelihoods.

She has also offered support and admiration for the firefighters, volunteers and emergency services officers.

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