SYDNEY • Australia is in the grip of another heatwave with temperatures forecast to soar this weekend, exacerbating deadly wildfires that have ravaged the nation for months.
Severe heat will spread across the south-east of the country over the next few days, building to "extreme" conditions in some areas, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. Parts of western Sydney are expected to reach 45 deg C by New Year's Eve.
The fire danger in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory was upgraded to severe yesterday, as high temperatures built up over the region.
The temperature in Sydney's western suburbs reached 41 deg C yesterday, while that in the inner city is expected to hit 31 deg C today before reaching 35 deg C on Tuesday.
With temperatures forecast to reach 40 deg C in Adelaide tomorrow, the state government in South Australia has declared a "code red" under which the authorities will provide additional support, including food and shelter, to vulnerable homeless people.
The intense weather could worsen blazes that have already burned out more than 4 million ha of forest and bushland since the wildfire season began unusually early in winter amid widespread drought.
The bush fires have already pumped out more than half of the country's annual carbon dioxide emissions, and left cities, including Sydney and Canberra, frequently shrouded in a toxic haze of smoke.
Nine people have been killed since the bush fire crisis began. In the worst-hit state, New South Wales, nearly 1,000 homes have been destroyed.
The crisis has triggered a debate about the impact of global warming in the world's driest inhabited continent and turned the spotlight on Prime Minister Scott Morrison's conservative government, which champions the coal industry and has dismissed calls to take more steps to curb emissions.
4 million Hectares of forest and bushland that have been burned since the wildfire season began early in winter.
Mr Morrison cut short a pre-Christmas family holiday to Hawaii amid a public backlash against the unannounced trip.
A giant blaze north-west of Sydney, known as the Gospers Mountain fire, has destroyed more than 500,000ha - an area about seven times the size of Singapore.
Another massive blaze, the Currowan fire, has played havoc with holidaymakers along the coast south of Sydney, threatening tourist towns and forcing the authorities to intermittently close the main highway.
The fire stretches nearly 100km from Nowra to the resort town of Batemans Bay and has burned about 220,000ha.
About 1,300 firefighters are in the field across New South Wales, battling about 70 blazes, according to the state's Rural Fire Service.
The states of Queensland, Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia have also been hit, stretching the resources of fire services, which are mainly staffed by unpaid volunteers.
Residents of two small communities in Victoria were told to evacuate yesterday as a bush fire burned out of control nearby and as temperatures were set to rise.
The authorities said the fire could affect the town of Goongerah, nearly 450km east of Melbourne, with a population of 60 people, and the nearby community of Martins Creek, and that residents should leave immediately.
The fires have also taken a huge toll on wildlife.
Thousands of koalas are feared to have died in a wildfire-ravaged area north of Sydney, further diminishing the numbers of Australia's iconic marsupial. The mid-north coast of New South Wales was home to up to 28,000 koalas, but wildfires in recent months have significantly reduced their population.
"Up to 30 per cent of their habitat has been destroyed," Environment Minister Sussan Ley told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "We'll know more when the fires are calmed down and a proper assessment can be made."
BLOOMBERG, REUTERS, ASSOCIATED PRESS