Australia heat wave, fire threat update: Australian fire threat not over yet, authorities warn

Fears that hot, dry weather would spark a deadly inferno in the Australian state of New South Wales failed to eventuate Tuesday, but authorities warned on Wednesday that the danger was not over yet.

A change in wind direction brought temperatures off record highs in the southern state, but the hot conditions moved further north where temperatures were expected to reach 36 degrees Celsius (96 degrees Fahrenheit) in the Queensland capital, Brisbane.

The fire danger north was rated as "very high," lower than the "catastrophic" warnings issued Tuesday in NSW where temperatures reached a record high of 43 degrees Celsius (109 degrees Fahrenheit) in Sydney.

The "catastrophic warning" was lifted Wednesday but the fire risk was still considered "severe" in the northeast of the state. In "severe" conditions, the NSW Rural Fire Service warns that a fire could be "unpredictable, uncontrollable and very fast moving."

"We've got temperature forecasts for places like Grafton of 41 degrees (105 degrees Fahrenheit) and winds gusting up to 50 kilometers an hour (31 mph). So whilst it's not as quite as bad as yesterday, by no means is it an easy fire day now for the northern part of New South Wales," Rob Rogers, Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner told ABC News 24.

Firefighters continued to battle around 130 fires in the state on Wednesday, he said, adding that authorities' main priority was to snuff them out before a predicted temperature rise later this week.

"Let's not forget that towards the end of the week and into Saturday we're returning to very hot conditions. So any fires that we have burning now under these conditions will probably break containment lines if we don't get a really good hold on them early."

On Wednesday, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology confirmed that the recent heatwave had set new temperature records.

The average maximum daily temperature of 40.33 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) recorded on Monday was the highest since December 1972. And during the last four months of 2012, average maximum daily temperatures were the highest on record since records began in 1910, the bureau said.

Stifling heat combined with the late onset of the Australian monsoon have created a tinderbox out of large swathes of bush and scrub land across the state.

A total fire ban remains in force in NSW and the Australian Capital Territory, the home of the Federal Parliament. The total fire ban has been lifted in Tasmania, though firefighters are still battling a number of blazes across the island state.

In Victoria, flames have swept over 9,500 hectares of bushland since last Thursday, according to the Victoria Country Fire Authority.

In the early hours of Tuesday, stern warnings were issued to the people of NSW that the day carried a "catastrophic" risk of fire.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard went on early morning television to warn it was "dangerous day." People were urged to monitor reports and get out early if they were in the path of fast-moving and unpredictable fires.

The "catastrophic" fire threat had led many to fear a repeat of "Black Saturday" in 2009, when soaring temperatures and high winds fanned the flames of a series of bush fires across the state of Victoria, leaving 173 people dead and 500 injured, and destroying thousands of homes.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Australian government announced that the state fire service would be granted access to Defence Force bases, fuel and personnel as part of the federal government disaster response plan.

In the first days of the new year, extreme heat contributed to the spread of fires across Tasmania.

Firefighters are still on alert, tackling a number of blazes, as residents who were in the path of the earlier fires returned to the charred rubble of their homes. More than 100 properties were destroyed or damaged.

Rescue workers urged people to contact their friends and family amid fears that as many as 100 people were missing.

"It's vitally important that all people who were in the area at the time, and are OK, self-register their details with the National Registration and Inquiry Service operated by the Red Cross," said Acting Deputy Commissioner Donna Adams.

Police have charged a 31-year-old man for allegedly causing one of the worst of the fires by leaving a campfire unattended that was not completely extinguished.


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