Australians who fled for their lives from bushfires faced the trauma on Friday of returning to see if they still had a home, as firefighters battled worsening conditions to douse more than 100 blazes.
After two days of cooler weather, heat and high winds returned to much of the country as fire crews tackled the infernos that have been burning for a week, 14 of them out of control in the most populous state of New South Wales.
The southern island state of Tasmania has been hardest hit, with more than 100 homes razed, most in the fishing village of Dunalley which was completely cut off by the fires, forcing some residents to make dramatic escapes by boat.
The worst-affected areas have been in virtual lockdown since the fast-moving flames wrecked devastation a week ago, and townspeople are only now making the harrowing journey to inspect the damage.
Many have no idea whether their houses are still standing and with smoke still billowing overhead, police warned fires remained active in the area as emergency crews worked to clear roads and restore electricity supplies.
“It must be remembered that some of these people don't know whether they have lost their homes, whether they've been badly damaged or saved from the fire,” police commander Peter Edwards told reporters.
“It's important that those without a genuine need to access the peninsula don't try to do so, as it will only slow progress for the residents who are obviously very anxious to return to their homes.”
Tasmania's chief health officer, Roscoe Taylor, said residents would need to wear disposable overalls and masks to protect against risks such as asbestos dust as they search through the debris.
Counselling services would be available as families come to terms with what they might find, while media were asked to stay away to protect residents' privacy.
“It can be very traumatic when you go back and see the house you lived in, the street you lived in, the town you lived in, has been so fire affected,” said acting Tasmanian police commissioner Scott Tilyard.
Total fire bans were in place across New South Wales and Victoria states, as well as the Australian Capital Territory which surrounds Canberra, with the mercury set to hit the low to mid-40 degree Celsius range (above 104 F).
“We've obviously got severe fire danger,” NSW Deputy Rural Fire Service Commissioner Rob Rogers said.
“On the back of those very warm days the vegetation is very dry and all we need is sparks and we will have a fire going.”
Despite the fires that have raged across south-east Australia, only a handful of homes have been destroyed outside of Tasmania, although thousands of head of stock have died and more than 350 000 hectares (865 000 acres) of land scorched.
Wildfires are a fact of life in arid Australia, where 173 people died in the 2009 Black Saturday firestorm, the nation's worst natural disaster of modern times. - Sapa-AFP