Sydney Sizzles in Record Heat as Fires Threaten Victorian Towns

Sydney, Australia’s largest city, posted its highest temperature ever recorded today, reaching 45.8 degrees Celsius (114.4 degrees Fahrenheit), as wildfires burned in five of the nation’s states, destroying homes.

The record, reached at 2:55 p.m. local time today, eclipses the previous high of 45.3 degrees on Jan. 14, 1939, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. Canberra, the national capital, posted its second-highest temperature of 41.6 degrees Celsius.

“Quite simply, Sydney is melting today,” Corey Watts, regional projects manager at The Climate Institute, a independent research organization funded by philanthropy seeking a zero-carbon global economy, said in an e-mailed statement. “This kind of weather cannot be taken lightly. These heat waves can have serious impacts on human health and wellbeing.”

Wildfires posed a threat to towns in Australia’s Victoria state, with weather forecasters warning of dangerous conditions throughout the nation’s populous southeast region. The biggest fire, in the Gippsland area in Victoria’s east, destroyed at least five homes, emergency services said.

“We’re just not used” to coping with the heat, said British tourist Alan Shallcross, who sweated under a broad-brimmed sun hat at Circular Quay after visiting Sydney’s Taronga Zoo with his wife, Pat. “When friends text us and tell us it is snowing in London, it is a bit weird.”

More than 80 fires are still ablaze in the states of New South Wales, where about 50 homes were destroyed last week, and in South Australia, Queensland and Tasmania, where about 100 homes were burnt earlier this month. Australia’s hot, dry climate makes bushfires a major risk in the southern hemisphere’s summer.

Falling Records

Today’s record comes after the continent registered a national average of 40.33 degrees Celsius on Jan. 7, the hottest day in more than 100 years of records. The worst fires in the nation’s history, the so-called Black Saturday blazes, killed 173 people as they swept through rural Victoria in February 2009.

Firefighters tackled a large, fast-moving blaze in the Glenmaggie area of the Gippsland region, Victoria’s Country Fire Authority said on its website. The state’s capital of Melbourne reached 30 degrees Celsius at 6 a.m., before temperatures cooled, according to the bureau.

While a low front will bring cooler weather to Sydney later today, it will also bring strong winds which may hamper fire-fighting efforts, the bureau’s forecaster, Julie Evans, said in a phone interview.

Sydney’s temperature is expected to plunge to 25 degrees tomorrow with Canberra falling to 27 degrees, the bureau said.

In downtown Sydney, air-conditioned shopping malls were crowded with office workers and tourists seeking respite from the heat as lunchtime temperatures hit 43 degrees Celsius.

“As long as I don’t have to do any hard manual labor, that’s fine,” said Corie Schneider, a U.S. tourist, as she walked through the city center clutching a surfboard before boarding a ferry to the northern beach suburb of Manly. “I’m from California, it’s a big desert and it gets hot, so this is good.”

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