Police warned today that up to 100 people were missing in the wake of bushfires that devastated parts of Tasmania and destroyed scores of properties at the weekend.
As a dozen fires continued to rage out of control, emergency teams searched burnt-out houses and cars in the worst affected towns, including the once picturesque fishing hamlet of Dunalley, where 65 properties including the school and police station were razed.
The island state’s acting police commissioner, Scott Tilyard, said there were grave fears for many people who had not made contact with their families or local authorities. “It’s not to say that those people have necessarily come to harm, but we can’t totally eliminate that … We have to brace ourselves for the fact we may locate one or more deceased people.”
About 2,500 people have been evacuated by boat from the Tasman Peninsula, south-east of Hobart, after a massive fire tore through a clutch of small towns on Friday. Other locals and tourists remain marooned in emergency shelters, with the one highway in and out still closed.
Dunalley residents told yesterday how they were forced to dive into a canal to escape the rapidly approaching flames. Others watched as fire consumed their homes.
Tony Young was in his shed when the ceiling ignited and fire began to spread to his house. “The trees just went off. They were like firecrackers – 20, 30 feet high,” he told Australia’s ABC. “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.”
The bushfires are Australia’s worst since the Black Saturday disaster of 2009, when 173 people died in rural Victoria.