SYDNEY (AFP) - The fire danger was elevated across wider swathes of southern Australia on Thursday (Nov 21), with residents warned to avoid at-risk areas as smoke from bush fires choked Adelaide.
Devastating fires along the country's east coast have claimed six lives and destroyed more than 500 homes since mid-October, with climate change and unseasonably hot, dry conditions fuelling the unprecedented blazes.
Now the fire danger has moved into states further south, with Victoria declaring a "Code Red" - its highest possible fire risk - in the state's north-west for the first time in a decade.
"What that means is that if we see fires in those areas, they will be fast moving, they will be unpredictable, they will be uncontrollable," emergency management commissioner Andrew Crisp told reporters.
Country Fire Authority chief Steve Warrington told people living in rural areas to leave for the safety of cities.
"We are saying, 'do not be there, do not be there when a fire occurs, because you will not survive if you are there'," he said. "There is a good chance if a fire occurs that your home will be destroyed."
For the second time in two days, smoke from bush fires blanketed Sydney, Australia's biggest city and home to more than five million people, sending air quality plummeting to hazardous levels.
More than 110 fires are still burning in worst-hit New South Wales and neighbouring Queensland.
In South Australia more than 40 fires broke out during catastrophic fire conditions on Wednesday. A South Australia Country Fire Service spokesman said all of those blazes had been brought under control or extinguished by Thursday, with the exception of a major fire on the Yorke Peninsula that had come perilously close to a small town.
Conditions were expected to ease in the coming days in South Australia, where the state capital Adelaide was also shrouded in bush fire smoke and residents were being told to stay indoors for health reasons.
The fire danger was also elevated to "severe" in the island state of Tasmania off mainland Australia's south-eastern coast, where a total fire ban was declared.
Two bush fires in the state's north-east did not pose an immediate threat to residents, the Tasmania Fire Service said.
Bush fire-prone Australia has experienced a horror start to its fire season, which scientists say is beginning earlier and becoming more extreme as climate change pushes temperatures higher and saps moisture from the environment after months of severe drought.
Growing calls to curb fossil fuels and drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions are being ignored by the country's conservative government, which is eager to protect its lucrative mining industry.
The country is bracing for challenging fire conditions to continue throughout the Southern Hemisphere summer.