SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Australia's most populous state New South Wales declared its second emergency in as many months on Thursday as extreme heat and strong winds stoked more than 100 bushfires, including three major blazes on Sydney's doorstep.
A day after Australia recorded its hottest day on record, thick smoke blanketed the harbour city, shrouded the Opera House and brought many outdoor activities to a halt.
Australia recorded its hottest day on Wednesday (Dec 18). Based on preliminary analysis, the nationally averaged maximum daytime temp was 41.9 deg C, exceeding the record set on Tuesday of 40.9 deg C, the Bureau of Meteorology said in a tweet on Thursday.
The state of emergency declaration gave firefighters broad powers to control government resources, force evacuations, close roads and shut down utilities across New South Wales, which is home to more than 7 million people.
Firefighters are battling more than 100 fires, more than half of which are uncontrolled, and with temperatures forecast to top 45 deg C in some areas, officials warned residents to be on high alert.
"The firefront has been spreading very quickly and intensely," NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters in Sydney, adding that two firefighters had been airlifted to hospital with burns to their faces and airways. "It's still a very difficult and dangerous set of circumstances."
Days out from Christmas, a time when many Australians head to the coast for the holidays, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian advised people to make sure "you are prepared to change your plans should circumstances change."
The RFS posted footage on its official Twitter account showing firefighters tackling one of the three blazes ringing Sydney.
A waterbomber aircraft was dwarfed by thick grey and black billowing cloud as it attempted to douse flames in bushland just metres away from homes.
Australia has been battling wildfires across much of its east coast for weeks, leaving six people dead, more than 680 homes destroyed and nearly 3 million hectares of bushland burnt. Berejiklian said as many as 40 homes had been destroyed on Thursday.
Some 1,700 firefighters have been deployed across NSW, but officials warned that was still not enough to cover every potential danger and urged people in high risk areas to evacuate while it was still safe to do so.
The current state of emergency will last for seven days, while a total fire ban that has been in place since Tuesday will remain until midnight on Saturday. The major fires around Sydney, which is home to more than 5 million people, have resulted in days of heavy pollution in the city usually known for its sparkling harbour and blue skies.
Sydney is ringed by large areas of bushland, much of which remains tinder dry following the driest Spring on record.
One megafire in the Kanangra Boyd National Park to the city's southwest had crept to the very outskirts of Campbelltown, a suburb of 157,000 people.
By late afternoon, Sydney was sitting at No.4 on the IQAir AirVisual live rankings of pollution in global cities, above Dhaka, Mumbai, Shanghai and Jakarta.
Many commuters have donned breathing masks in recent weeks as air quality has plunged to hazardous levels not previously seen in the city.
NSW Ambulance Commissioner Dominic Morgan said the service had experienced a 10 per cent surge in call-outs for patients suffering respiratory conditions over the past week and urged susceptible people to remain indoors and keep their medication close.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has weathered a storm of criticism on social media in recent days for going on an overseas holiday during the emergency, adding to criticism that his government is failing to deliver adequate climate change policies.
As the media reported Morrison was in Hawaii with his family to enjoy a break, about 500 protesters gathered outside his official Sydney residence to demand urgent action on climate change.
Morrison's office refused to confirm his whereabouts.
One protester, wearing an Hawaiian shirt, carried a sign reading, "ScoMo, where the bloody hell are you?" referencing the leader's nickname and a decade-old international advertisement for Tourism Australia that was banned in several countries because the language was deemed offensive.
Firefighters are struggling with the sheer number of fires.
"There are simply not enough fire trucks for every house. If you call for help, you may not get it," the RFS. "Do not expect a fire truck. Do not expect a knock on the door. Do not expect a phone call."
The extreme conditions have been exacerbated by a warming climate, which is triggering large-scale protests in a country that has been committed to exploiting its vast coal reserves.
Australia's low-lying Pacific neighbours have been particularly critical of the coal-rich nation's climate policies following modest progress at the UN climate talks in Madrid.
"It was particularly disappointing to see our Pacific cousins in Australia actively standing in the way of progress at a time when we have been watching in horror as their own country is ablaze," Marshall Islands president Hilda Heine said in a statement on Wednesday.