Australia Swelters in Biggest Heat Wave Since 2001

Australia is facing its most wide-ranging heatwave in more than a decade as 80 percent of the continent is hit by temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), the Bureau of Meteorology said.

State emergency services have flagged the risk of wildfires that could threaten homes and farms, while power companies are bracing for increased demand for electricity. The extreme weather, caused by a mass of hot air, has spread east from Western Australia and is expected to affect the most populous states of Victoria and New South Wales in the next week.

“It is a very wide-ranging heatwave,” Blair Trewin, a climatologist at the Bureau of Meteorology, said by telephone from Melbourne. The last time such large swathes of the country experienced comparable heat was in 2001, he said.

Crops in Australia, last year’s second-biggest wheat exporter, may escape the worst of the heatwave. Harvesting of winter crops including wheat, barley and canola, is nearly complete in southern New South Wales and Victoria, GrainCorp Ltd., eastern Australia’s largest grain handler, said Dec. 24. The harvest is all but complete across most of South Australia, according to Viterra Inc.

The hot weather “may have an impact on dryland cotton, but there’s not much of that around this year,” Paul Deane, an agricultural economist at Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd., said by phone from Melbourne. “It can increase the chance of crop stress, but as long as they’re well irrigated, I don’t know that it potentially has a massive impact.”

Record Temperature

Temperatures could top 47 degrees Celsius in South Australia, where a national record of 50.7 degrees Celsius was recorded in 1960, the weather bureau said.

Rainfall was generally below to very-much-below average across the southern half of mainland Australia from April, the bureau said. Southwest Western Australia had the driest July on record while southern Australia had lowest-on-record October rainfall, it said.

The Country Fire Service in South Australia flagged severe danger ratings for eight districts and warned that if a blaze took hold it would be difficult for authorities to bring it under control.

Australia’s hot, dry climate makes bush fires a major risk in the southern summer months. The worst fires in Australian history, the so-called Black Saturday blazes, killed 173 people as they swept through rural parts of Victoria state in February 2009.

Outback Town

The heatwave will affect much of Victoria state, western New South Wales, western Queensland, most of South Australia, the southern half of the Northern Territory and parts of Western Australia.

“This is the hottest weather I have ever experienced in my five years here,” Kyle Hay, an employee at the Opal Inn in the South Australian Outback town of Coober Pedy, said by telephone. “The town’s a lot quieter and there is a lot less business.”

While electricity generators are gearing up to meet higher demand from households, they have enough capacity as many industries are shut down during the vacation period, said Malcolm Roberts, chief executive officer of the Energy Networks Association, which represents the nation’s electricity and gas network companies.

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