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Scores cope with heartbreak after bushfires rip through Tasmania

By Greg Botelho, CNN
updated 5:40 AM EST, Mon January 7, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: There are no confirmed deaths, but authorities are still looking, police say
  • NEW: Australia's prime minister visits Tasmania, offers help
  • Conditions should be windy and hot Monday but are expected to cool afterward
  • "At least I'm still alive. I realize I'm very lucky to be alive," an evacuee says

(CNN) -- Two bushfires still rage out of control in southeast Tasmania, high heat and strong winds persist and scores are coming to grips with the destruction causes by the flames that have already rushed through.

Yet, for all the tears shed thus far, the news could be worse.

"It's been a nightmare," Richard Scolyer told Nine News, a CNN affiliate. "I just go along with what happens.

"At least I'm still alive. I realize I'm very lucky to be alive."

Wildfires that tore through tens of thousands of hectares on the island off Australia's southern coast destroyed more than 100 homes, but they haven't caused any known deaths, according to police and local officials.

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"We've had no reports of fatalities at this stage," Sorrell Council Mayor Kerry Vincent told CNN affiliate Sky Australia early Monday. Vincent's territory includes Dunalley, where about 65 homes and an elementary school were destroyed Friday in addition to dozens more homes and businesses in neighboring communities, authorities said.

Acting Tasmanian Police Commissioner Scott Tilyard likewise said Monday that authorities haven't found any indication anyone died in the fires.

But he said they are still continuing to sift through about 500 inquiries -- some of whom may be for the same person or be for people who weren't even in the fire zones -- about potentially missing people. Then there's the matter of double-checking on the ground, including combing through scorched buildings, to ensure everyone survived.

"Until we've had the opportunity to do all the screening that we need to do, ... 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.

Some -- like Scolyer, who arrived with nothing more than a toothbrush and the clothes he was wearing -- found refuge in the prison-turned-tourist attraction in Port Arthur. There, they have been given meals and other necessities.

They've also found plenty of company in their heartbreak.

"Apparently, it's burnt out," Garry Fahey said of his house. "But it's home, no matter what it's like."

Back in Dunalley, Ivan Kelly and his sons drove through the flames to escape, only to return later to find their homes and the timber mill they once owned scorched.

Paige Kelly, one of the sons, said the family is trying to figure out how to tell the people who worked there that the mill may not come back.

"How do you tell somebody that?" Kelly told Nine News. "I don't know."

While this town already has been decimated, others remained in danger Monday.

According to a Monday morning update from the Tasmania Fire Service, "watch and alert" advisories have been issued for a pair of fires that have already collectively burned about 29,000 hectares (110 square miles).

As of that time -- and despite some progress overnight -- neither of those bushfires was under control.

"Although there has been a decrease in weather conditions and fire activity overnight and this morning, people need to remain vigilant, as fire and weather conditions can change rapidly," the service said for the larger of the two blazes, known as the Forcett Fire.

Mother Nature wasn't helping much Monday, where high temperatures in the most affected areas are expected to reach 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

The same forecast for southeast Tasmania called for daytime winds of 20 to 30 kph (12 to 19 mph), slowly slightly by evening.

Cooler temperatures are likely and isolated rain showers are possible for Tuesday and Wednesday, though winds could also intensify on those days.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard visited the fire-stricken area Monday, later talking about those who "lost so much but (are not) able to see it" themselves and others "who wanted to do something as simple as go on a family holiday have had to confront the forces of nature at work."

"To all of those people, I do want to say we're thinking of you in these moments of grief and despair, and we will be working with you in the days to come," she said.

Aerial photographs taken earlier by Nine News showed the fire's fury as it hopscotched homes in Dunalley and Boomer Bay, burning two homes, leaving one standing and then burning another.

Tasmania's fire chief told reporters Sunday that firefighters hope to bring the blaze under control by Tuesday.

Part of the problem is the rugged nature of the Tasman Peninsula -- in the southeast part of island -- where the fires have been burning since last week, Chief Fire Officer Mike Brown said Sunday.

"There (are) still some problems getting fire vehicles into the Tasman Peninsula to work more on protecting properties and protecting assets,'' he said.

CNN's Chelsea J. Carter contributed to this report.

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