Brief cooldown, but Australians warned wildfire risk will go on

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Australians suffering in searing temperatures that have hit record highs have had a brief respite from both the extreme heat and high fire risk which has blighted the south of the country and led to catastrophic wildfires.

Many were still raging yesterday as southern Australia saw a brief cooldown from its heatwave that brought the hottest day on record with a nationwide average of 40.33 Celsius, narrowly breaking a 1972 record of 40.17C.

Tuesday was the third hottest day at 40.11C. Four of Australia’s hottest 10 days on record have been in 2013.

“There’s little doubt that this is a very, very extreme heatwave event,” Bureau of Meteorology manager of climate monitoring and prediction David Jones said. “If you look at its extent, its duration, its intensity, it is arguably the most significant in Australia’s history.”

With yesterday’s cooldown in southern Australia, the national capital, Canberra, dropped from a high of 36C to 28C and Sydney dropped from 43C to 23C.

But Mr Jones expected yesterday would still rank among Australia’s hottest days when the national temperatures are calculated, with the extreme heat shifting from the heavier populated south to northern and central Australia.

The bureau has forecast above-average temperatures for the remainder of summer, compounding the fire danger created by a lack of rain across central and southern areas in the past six months.

“It is going to be very challenging,” Mr Jones said of the wildfire danger.

No deaths have been reported, although around 100 people have not been accounted for since last week when a fire destroyed around 90 homes in the Tasmanian town of Dunalley, east of the state capital of Hobart.

Police spokeswoman Lisa Stingel said it is likely most simply have not checked in with officials.

“There are no reports of missing persons in circumstances that cause us to have grave fears for their safety at this time,” Tasmania Police Acting Commissioner Scott Tilyard said.

Thousands of cattle and sheep as well as wildlife are believed to have been killed.

In Victoria state, a fire injured six people, destroyed four homes and caused the evacuation of the farming community of Carngham, Country Fire Authority operations officer Ian Morley said.

Cooler conditions had brought relief to firefighters who would work through the day to build earth breaks to contain the fire ahead of warmer temperatures forecast for Friday, he added.

“We have had very mild, cool conditions overnight which is a great help to the fire suppression effort.”

In New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, firefighters were battling 141 fires, including 31 not yet contained.

Fires have burnt through more than 131,000 hectares of forest and farmland since Tuesday and a home was reported to have been destroyed there. Wildfires burning out of control near the towns of Cooma, Yass and Shoalhaven were the most concerning.

Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers said the cool reprieve was expected to be short-lived, with temperatures forecast to climb again by the end of the week.

The most devastating of the fires have been seen in Tasmania where at least 128 homes have been destroyed since Friday.

Hundreds of people remain at two evacuation centres in the state’s south, as fires continue to burn more than 80,000 hectares.

“People have lost everything. We can’t comprehend that devastation unless we are in their shoes,” Tasmanian premier Lara Giddings said.

Wildfires are common in an Australian summer. Fires in February 2009 killed 173 people and destroyed 2,000 homes in Victoria.