Nation on alert as bushfires spread, Gillard warns NSW residents to be vigilant

Hopes for no fatalities rise in bushfire search

09 January 2013

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Australia —   Confidence is rising that the worst bushfires in Tasmania in nearly half a century could be fatality free.

Police had held grave fears for up to 100 people but now say they have no concerns for any specific missing person.

Acting Commissioner Scott Tilyard said police were still to account for everyone but hopes were rising after searches of 850 sites.

”We have no missing persons reports in circumstances where we hold grave fears for the safety of any individual, which is a very positive position to be in,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

”As time goes by that confidence gains but we’re still yet to complete our searching process.

”Until such time as we have then we really can’t confirm that no one has passed away.

”The indications up until now are good and we hope that that continues.”

Tasmania is widely considered to have suffered its worst fires since 1967, when 62 lives and 2000 properties were lost.

The blazes which began last Thursday have destroyed 130 properties and burnt 110,000 hectares.

”We certainly were expecting that we might find deceased people given the ferocity of the fire, particularly as it moved through the peninsula last Friday,” Mr Tilyard said.

”So the outcome has been better than what we anticipated.”

There have also been few injuries, with only minor burns, scratches, bruises and smoke inhalation reported, much of it among firefighters.

Cool conditions in Tasmania had allowed authorities to downgrade most of the state’s 30 bushfires by Wednesday evening.

Watch and act warnings are in place for the Tasman Peninsula, Montumana in the northwest and Curries River in the state’s north with winds still causing problems.

Warmer temperatures and northwesterly winds on Thursday and Friday could increase the danger, Tasmania Fire Service’s Deputy Chief Officer Gavin Freeman said.

”Just because it’s cooler conditions doesn’t mean it’s safe,” he said.

A group of 13 New Zealand volunteer firefighters headed for the Tasmanian capital Hobart to relieve exhausted locals.

Meanwhile, frustrated townsfolk from bushfire-ravaged Dunalley in southeast Tasmania could return to their properties as soon as Friday.

Tasmania police plan to start allowing people to return to the state’s worst-hit town in stages.

”If all goes to plan on Friday that will give us a clearer idea of how quickly we can expedite the return of people to other areas,” Mr Tilyard said.

Up to 90 homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged in and around the Tasman Peninsula fishing village.

Health and safety concerns have meant residents who fled the area have not been allowed back and the Arthur Highway to the peninsula has stayed closed.

Mr Tilyard said some residents had become frustrated.

”The vast majority of people … are quite understanding when it’s explained to them why they can’t be allowed through,” he said.

”There will always be one or two people whose worry and frustration does tip over into a little bit of anger.”

A police-escorted bus convoy was taking evacuees back to the Tasman Peninsula to collect abandoned cars on Wednesday evening.

Thousands of visitors to the peninsula fled a massive blaze by boat on the weekend, leaving hundreds of private and hire vehicles behind.

And the state government was warning Tasmanians to be wary of people seeking to profiteer from the fires.

Minister for Consumer Protection Nick McKim says people should be careful of businesses overcharging or of fraudulently collecting donations.

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