Fire strikes and it's all over

The fire that came for Dunalley brought a dark rhythm with it.

''What happened to my parents, happened to me,'' said boilermaker Mal Murdock, as he stood amid the ruins of his dreams.

Here was the 1974 Harley Davidson Sport, a cindered wreck. Over there under buckled corrugated iron in one shed sat the remains of a vintage speedboat. In another shed squatted a melted Mark Skaife signature Monaro.

All gone. When the bushfire howled out of the forest to the north of the once-pretty seaside town in catastrophic weather on Friday it reduced a third of the town's houses to smoking heaps in chilling proof that Australia once more is in a bushfire summer.

More than 100 properties went up in Dunalley and nearby communities. The hills were black, vegetation scorched to the sea.

And the threat remained. The Tasmanian Fire Service issued an emergency warning late on Saturday afternoon for a large bushfire threatening about 15,000 hectares at Forcett in the state's south-east.

''It is too late to leave. Residents should take shelter now and go to their nearby safer place only if the path is clear. Leaving now is considered extremely dangerous,'' TFS said on its website.

The east coast holiday town of Coles Bay was isolated on Saturday afternoon by a fire at Bicheno, 180km north-east of Hobart. More than a dozen properties had been lost south of Bicheno.

Alerts remained for fires in the state's south-east at Nubeena, near Dunalley, and also at Lake Repulse, while up to 77 fire crews were working on fires across Tasmania.

No deaths or serious injuries have been confirmed, despite reports that a man had died while trying to save his house in the Dunalley fire.

For survivors in Dunalley on Saturday, the blaze's scale drew an instinctive comparison to Tasmania's 1967 bushfires, which cost 62 lives and left thousands homeless.

''I was six years old,'' Murdock said. ''My parents lost a house, too.''

This time he stayed, wet the ground and watched the flames roll north along the hilltops, then turn and bear down at him. He realised it was all too great to fight.

''Then I ran over the bridge.''

Dunalley, the entry-point to the Tasman Peninsula, has a sea canal running through it, and Murdock could sit on the bank and watch his house from the other side.

''I could see it all go. The Harley, the boat, the car. Then I saw it licking around the porch on my house after the front had gone. I said to one of the firies could they please just send someone over with a hose. They did, and it was saved.''

Not so the nearby family of four who, red-eyed and downcast, declined to speak as they poked around the remains of their home while their 1970s Corolla stood, indestructibly, still for sale on the verge.

Or for the couple in their 70s whose home was flattened, leaving a satellite dish behind and a collection of charred garden statues.

Their daughter, who declined to identify the couple, said they were too upset to talk. ''They're holding up,'' she said. ''They remember 1967. But how do you start again at 78?''

Further on, past the twisted wreck of the bakery and the burnt-out primary school, Holly Kelly, 19, walked the street looking for a black shar pei.

''It's a little dog, it's not mine, but I'm looking for it for a friend.''

When the fire came she was at home with her 11 horses. She shifted them from a grassy paddock and the animals crowded behind a caravan.

''I stayed as long as I could, but the sky was all full of black smoke,'' she said. ''Colin and Todd, my brothers, stayed and saved our place. Next door it just went down.''

In the paddock behind her, one of the horses nipped another over rights to the hay.

Dunalley survived. Mal Murdock shrugged his shoulders. ''It's just one of those things,'' he said.

with Jane Lee

The story Fire strikes and it's all over first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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