SYDNEY (AFP) - Residents got their first look on Tuesday (March 20) at the devastation wrought by a bushfire that ravaged a town in Australia, but fears over asbestos and unstable structures mean even those with houses still standing cannot move back.
Sixty-nine homes were incinerated in Tathra on the south coast of New South Wales (NSW), and another 39 damaged, after a blaze fanned by gusty winds and hot, dry conditions swept through the picturesque seaside village on Sunday and Monday.
Another 30 caravans or cabins were also lost in the fire, which left scenes of burned-out cars, blackened trees and property reduced to rubble.
While some locals were able to return on a bus tour and see what was left, safety concerns over asbestos, fallen power lines, unstable structures and other hazards mean they must wait until at least Wednesday before being able to pick up the pieces.
"It's well known that asbestos dust, which arises after asbestos is burned, is very mobile and can get into the atmosphere," recovery coordinator Euan Ferguson told reporters, with testing under way to determine it was safe.
"It can get into the lungs and cause fatal diseases."
Asbestos cement or sheeting, a cheap and durable material, was widely used in the Australian building industry after World War II until the 1980s.
Hundreds of evacuated residents spent Monday night at a recovery centre at nearby Bega, under the care of charities and volunteers, as firefighters continued to tackle parts of the blaze.
"Overnight, crews have made good progress on the southern side of the fire, with containment on most of this part of the fire," the NSW Rural Fire Service said of the blaze that has burned out more than 1,000 hectares.
"Crews are continuing to focus on the northern side of the fire."
While the threat to homes had eased, authorities warned that "this may change quickly", depending on the weather. At least five schools remained closed.
"I totally feel for what they must be going through. They must just be in total limbo," a Tathra local identified only as John, whose house survived, told broadcaster ABC of his fellow residents.
But he said the town would "stick together and we'll rebuild and look after one another as we always have".
Some 40,000 hectares were also scorched in southwestern regions of neighbouring Victoria state as dozens of blazes swept through over the weekend, wiping out beef and dairy cattle.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said the unprecedented force of the fires claimed at least 18 homes.
Despite the damage, authorities said there were no reports of serious injuries or deaths.
Experts said the infernos showed the bushfire season - which usually occurs in the summer months of December-February - was lengthening as climate change disrupts weather patterns.