6 Jan 2013

Tasmanian bushfires may have claimed lives - police

10:04 pm on 6 January 2013

Police in Tasmania say they have not been able to contact about 100 people after bushfires that have ravaged the state over the past three days.

Police fear there may have been deaths in the state's south-east where more than 100 homes have been destroyed by a bushfire 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.

Acting Police Commissioner Scott Tilyard told reporters on Sunday afternoon there were 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.

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

The ABC reports the Tasmania Fire Service (TFS) has upgraded the warning for a large Forcett bushfire to emergency status saying the fire danger in the area is very high.

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.

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 Saturday.

Bushfires have collectively destroyed 120,000 hectares.

Police say 1500 - 2000 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.

More than 1000 people have been evacuated by boat from the Tasman Peninsula to Hobart.

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.

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

Prime Minister Julia Gillard will tour fire-ravaged Dunalley on Monday.

On Friday, Hobart had its highest temperature since 1883 at 41.3 degrees Celsius, but it dropped on Saturday.

The New Zealand Fire Service says it has not yet been asked to help battle the blazes.