Fires to follow floods as wild weather hits Australia

SYDNEY (AFP) – Eastern Australia braced for more fires and floods Friday as the south faced extreme heat and heavy rain threatened to swell floodwaters ravaging the north.

A once-in-a-century heatwave was forecast to intensify over the weekend with high temperatures and dry winds producing the worst wildfire conditions in 25 years, authorities said.

“We’re talking about fire danger that hasn’t been seen since Ash Wednesday coming up on Saturday,” said Ron Patterson, an environment department spokesman from Victoria state.

The Ash Wednesday fires of 1983 killed 75 people and devastated large areas of Australia’s southeast, wiping out some 2,500 homes.

The mercury is expected to top 44 degrees in Sydney, Australia’s largest city, on Sunday, with temperatures in excess of 46 degrees forecast for inland areas.

Much of the southeast has sweltered under record temperatures this summer, with wildfires destroying at least 29 homes last week and dozens of mainly elderly people dying of heat-related stress.

The temperature in the South Australian capital Adelaide soared to above 42 degrees on Friday and authorities warned of worse to come.

“The fire danger forecast for Saturday may be as extreme as we’ve seen in South Australia for a number of years,” said fire service spokesman Euan Ferguson.

A 120-hectare blaze was Friday threatening to break containment lines and threaten property in Victoria’s Gippsland region, with the state’s premier John Brumby describing conditions as “tinder-dry”.

Almost 40 separate fires raged in the neighbouring state of New South Wales, where 70,000 volunteer firefighters will be on standby throughout the weekend.

Adding to the fear is the knowledge that many of Australia’s wildfires are lit by arsonists.

Police are hunting fire starters believed to have sparked last week’s fire that destroyed nearly 30 homes in Victoria state.

The government’s Australian Institute of Criminology released a report on Sunday which said half of the nation’s 20,000 to 30,000 bushfires each year are deliberately lit.

But in the northeast, floodwaters have devastated more than one million square kilometres (385,000 square miles), inundating homes, destroying at least a fifth of the region’s sugar cane fields and stranding tens of thousands of cattle.

“There are cattle suffering pretty seriously,” said Cattle Council of Australia president Greg Brown.

“There is some mortality rate, just how great that is at this stage is pretty hard to tell, but it’s going to be, I think, substantial.”

Farmers unable to move produce due to the floods were facing millions of dollars in losses, while the army was preparing to drop food into some towns that have been cut off for up to a week.

The deluge, which followed two recent cyclones, hit almost 3,000 homes, forcing dozens of evacuations and leaving scores of people stranded.

Some towns in the Gulf of Carpentaria region could remain inaccessible by road for another six weeks, authorities have warned.

Further heavy rains are expected, as a tropical low hovers off the coast, the weather bureau said.

Meteorologists have warned the extreme temperatures and downpours — a common feature of Australian summers — would only increase as a result of climate change.

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