Australia wildfires char Tasmania, leave firefighters searching for 100 people missing

Homes destroyed by a wildfire between Dunalley and Boomer Bay, east of the Tasmanian capital of Hobart, Australia, Jan. 5, 2013. AP

HOBART, Australia Officials searched Monday for bodies among the charred ruins of more than 100 homes and other buildings destroyed by wildfires in the Australian island state of Tasmania. Around 100 residents remained unaccounted for, three days after the fires broke out.

As scores of fires raged across Australia's parched southeast, a volunteer firefighter suffered severe burns to his hands and face while fighting a grass fire near Gundaroo village, about 138 miles southwest of Sydney, the New South Wales state Rural Fire Service said in a statement. The firefighter was flown to a hospital in Sydney.

Tasmania's acting police commissioner, Scott Tilyard, said no casualties had been reported in the state from the fires. But he said it would take time before officials were certain that no one had died in the blazes, which have razed 50,000 acres of forests and farmland across southern Tasmania since Friday.

Tilyard said 11 teams of officials were searching for the roughly 100 missing residents in places including the small town of Dunalley, east of the state capital of Hobart, where around 90 homes were destroyed.

"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," Tilyard told reporters.

Three fires continued to burn out of control in southern Tasmania and in the northwest Monday.

Police charged a 31-year-old man with starting one of the southern fires, near Lake Repulse, by leaving a camp fire unattended last week.

Police did not release his name, and it was not clear what penalty he could face if convicted.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who flew to Tasmania on Monday, warned that New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, was about to move into a period of extreme heat Tuesday and that the wildfire risk would be high.

"We live in a country that is hot and dry and where we sustain very destructive fires periodically," Gillard told reporters. "Whilst you would not put any one event down to climate change ... we do know over time that as a result of climate change we are going to see more extreme weather events and conditions."

New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said more than 90 wildfires were blazing across the state Monday, including the Gundaroo fire. He warned that conditions would worsen on Tuesday. No homes were currently under threat.

"It is going to be very hot and very dry. Couple that with the dryness of the vegetation, the grassland fuels, the forest fuels and those strong winds that are expected tomorrow," he said.

Temperatures across much the state was expected to reach 113 degrees Fahrenheit on Tuesday, while winds were expected to be as strong as 50 miles per hour.

Wildfires are common during the Australian summer. In February 2009, hundreds of fires across Victoria state killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes.

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