Soaring Temperatures Put Australian Firefighters Back on Alert

Temperatures in Australia’s southeast are forecast to soar today, creating a return to the dangerous conditions that’s seen more than 150 homes destroyed this month as wildfires burn in five states.

South Australia’s state capital, Adelaide, is expected by the Bureau of Meteorology to reach 42 degrees Celsius (108 degrees Fahrenheit) today, while in Melbourne, which is hosting the Australian Open grand slam tennis tournament, temperatures will hit 39 degrees.

“A large mass of hot air has been over central Australia for several weeks, baking the continent,” said Stuart Coombs, a Melbourne-based forecaster for the bureau. “The combination of very low rainfall, very high temperatures and these occasional stronger winds has given rise to some pretty nasty fire danger situations and there’s no let up yet.”

Prime Minister Julia Gillard is today inspecting damage at the New South Wales town of Coonabarabran, 450 kilometers (280 miles) northwest of Sydney, where a fire that destroyed at least 49 homes earlier this week is still burning. That’s among more than 70 blazes still going in the state, even after firefighters enjoyed relief earlier this week from cooler weather.

Fires are also burning in South Australia, Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania, where about 100 homes were destroyed earlier this month. The worst fires in the nation’s history, the so-called Black Saturday blazes, killed 173 people as they swept through rural areas of Victoria state in February 2009.

Australia’s dangerous fire season has emerged after two years of wetter-than-normal conditions led to extensive growth in grass and scrub, which has subsequently died and dried, leading to more fuel for fires that often start through lightning strikes, the bureau’s Coombs said. The continent registered a national average of 40.33 degrees Celsius on Jan. 7, the hottest day in more than 100 years of records.

“In the next week or so, with no real rain forecast, there’s not a lot of relief in the offing,” Coombs said. Sydney, Australia’s largest city, and Canberra, the national capital, are both forecast by the bureau to reach 38 degrees tomorrow.

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