The Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has warned residents of New South Wales to remain vigilant as temperatures are expected to soar this week, fuelling further bush fires across Tasmania and Victoria.
Around 100 residents from the small coastal town of Dunalley on the island state of Tasmania remained unaccounted for last night as scores of blazes continued to rage across Australia's parched southeast. More than 50,000 acres of forests and farmland across southern Tasmania have been destroyed by the fires since Friday.
Temperatures are expected to reach 45C in rural areas and 43C in Sydney today – the third highest on record for the city. Ms Gillard flew to Tasmania yesterday to visit Dunalley, which has borne the brunt of the blaze, with more than 90 homes, a school, and the police station burnt to the ground.
"I've come to Tasmania today for one purpose," Ms Gillard said. "That's to say to the people of Tasmania that the nation is standing with them at this very, very difficult time".
Walking through the charcoaled remains of Dunalley primary school, Ms Gillard told the residents of New South Wales to expect extreme heat to set in today, which could fuel further fires.
"It's an awful scene," she added. "The devastation and the randomness of it... But the worst thing is if human lives are lost."
Tasmania's acting police commissioner, Scott Tilyard, said yesterday that no casualties had been reported as a result of the fires, although 11 teams of officials were searching for the roughly 100 missing residents.
"Until we've had the opportunity to do all the screening that we need to do at each of those premises, we can't say for certain that there hasn't been a human life or more than one human life lost as a result of these fires," Mr Tilyard told reporters.
Ms Gillard also visited the Tasmanian capital of Hobart where hundreds of people are sheltering at City Hall, one of a number of evacuation points.
"[While] you would not put any one event down to climate change ... we do know that over time as a result of climate change we are going to see more extreme weather events," she warned. Three fires continued to burn in southern Tasmania and in the northwest yesterday.
Non-residents have been warned to stay away from Dunalley, Forcett and Lake Repulse, where blazes were being fought by fire fighters. A 31-year-old man was charged with starting one of the fires near Lake Repulse by leaving a camp fire unattended last week.
Extreme temperatures, northerly winds and lush vegetation resulting from several wet years, have been blamed for creating a ripe environment for the devastating bush fires, which are the worst Australia has seen since February 2009, when 173 people were killed in Victoria.
The bush fires are the worst Australia has seen since February 2009 when 173 people died.