A surfer sits with his surfboard on the footpath above
Manly Beach as the temperature rises in Sydney.
Australia was bracing today for days of "catastrophic"
fire and heatwave conditions, with fires already burning in
five states and as a search continued for people missing after
devastating wildfires in the island state of Tasmania.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard toured fire-ravaged Tasmanian
townships and promised emergency aid for survivors, who told
of a "fireball" that engulfed communities across the
thinly-populated state on Friday and Saturday.
"The trees just exploded," local man Ashley Zanol told
Australian radio, recounting a wall of flames that surrounded
his truck as he carted water to assist fire crews in the
hard-hit township of Murdunna, largely levelled in the
Tasmanian police said around 100 people feared missing in
bushfires had been accounted for and there had so far been no
deaths as authorities combed through still-smouldering ruins
of homes and vehicles, while evacuating local people and
Bushfires were ablaze in five of Australia's six states, with
90 fires in the most populous state New South Wales, and in
mountain forests around the national capital Canberra.
Severe fire conditions were forecast for tomorrow,
replicating those of 2009, when "Black Saturday" wildfires in
Victoria state killed 173 people and caused $4.4 billion
worth of damage.
A record heatwave, which began in Western Australia on
December 27 and lasted eight days, was the fiercest in more
than 80 years in that state and has spread east across the
nation, making it the widest-ranging heatwave in more than a
decade, according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.
Tomorrow would bring the highest "catastrophic" bushfire
temperature conditions, said fire officials, under which
people are advised to flee if fire threatens, as the blaze is
likely to be too fierce for fire crews to easily extinguish.
"Any fire that burns under the predicted conditions - 40
degree (Celsius) temperatures, below 10 percent humidity,
winds gusting over 70 kilometres an hour - those conditions
are by any measure horrendous," New South Wales Rural Fire
Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers said.
In the Australian capital Canberra, hit by a firestorm in
2003 that destroyed hundreds of homes, authorities said they
were expecting the worst conditions in the decade since, with
a fifth day of searing temperatures and strong winds.
"With those winds it boosts up the fire danger
significantly," the city's deputy fire chief Michael Joyce
told local reporters.
Blazes sparked by weekend lightning storms were already
burning in forests surrounding the sprawling
lake-and-bushland city, as they did 10 years earlier.
Australia, the world's driest inhabited continent, is
particularly vulnerable to bushfires, fuelled each summer by
extreme heat and by what climate scientists say is creeping
climate shift blamed for hotter average temperatures
Authorities warned earlier in the Australian summer that much
of the country faced extreme fire conditions this season,
after several years of cooler conditions that had aided
forest growth, but also created tinder dry fire fuel
Gillard warned all Australians to be alert as temperatures
soared in coming days.
"We live in a country that is hot and dry, and where we
sustain very destructive fires periodically, so there is
always going to be risk," she told reporters.
"We do know over time that as a result of climate change we
are going to see more extreme weather events and conditions."
Australia is the world's second-largest wheat exporter, but
its wheat harvest was not expected to be affected by the
fires and hot weather, as the vast majority of this season's
winter crop had already been harvested, analysts said.
"In respect to the summer crop, the sunflowers, sorghum for
example, the weather will have an impact, particularly in
northern New South Wales where they had low soil moisture
coming into the season," said Andrew Woodhouse, grains
analyst at Advance Trading Australasia.
GrainCorp, Australia's largest listed agricultural company,
said the planting window for crops like sorghum closes in
mid-February, which would allow farmers to delay seeding
until conditions improve.
"Farmers will be looking for rain for sure, but we will have
to wait and see what happens," GrainCorp spokesman Angus