Australia weather: firefighters battle Boxing Day bushfires ahead of looming heatwave

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Temperatures forecast to reach the mid-40s again as heat moves from South Australia to New South Wales by Monday

Calla Wahlquist  –  The  Guardian

Australia’s east coast is set to face a sweltering end to 2019, with heatwave conditions forecast to move across South Australia on Saturday and Sunday, reaching NSW and Victoria on Monday. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Firefighters in South Australia and New South Wales have continued to battle out-of-control bushfires on Boxing Day, before a heatwave brings extreme temperatures to many parts of Australia later in the week.

Thousands of firefighters spent Christmas Day strengthening containment lines and creating strategic firebreaks around active blazes in SA, NSW and Victoria, to prepare for severe to extreme fire conditions on Monday and Tuesday.

A large fire on the NSW south coast, known as the Currowan fire, was upgraded to watch and act on Thursday.

Residents and visitors in a number of towns and popular holiday villages were warned to be vigilant as fire activity increased in the Wandandian and Jerrawangala area.

A watch and act warning was also issued on Boxing Day for Cudlee Creek, Gumeracha, Lobethal, Charleston, Woodside, Mount Torrens, Chain of Ponds, Inglewood, Castambul, Paracombe, Millbrook, Montacute, Harrogate, Kenton Valley, Birdwood, Tungkillo and Mount Beevor in the Mount Lofty Ranges in SA.

“Take action now as this bushfire may threaten your safety. If you are not prepared, leave now and if the path is clear, go to a safer place,” a police warning states.

Temperatures in the area are expected to rise to about 40C on Friday.

In Queensland more than 2,500 homes spent at least part of Christmas Day without power, as severe thunderstorms caused power outages in the Gold Coast in the morning, and the Brisbane suburbs of Mount Gravatt and Morningside, as well as the regional areas of Kin Kin, near Gympie, and Royston, in the afternoon.

A severe heatwave with localised pockets of extreme heat was forecast to move across South Australia on Saturday and Sunday, reaching NSW and Victoria on Monday.

Temperatures were not forecast to match the heights of last week, when Australia recorded its four hottest days ever, but will reach 45C in Penrith, 37C in Katoomba, 37C in Sydney and 35C along much of the NSW south coast on Monday.

The most dangerous fire conditions would come at the tail end of the heatwave, when a cold front would bring a sudden north-westerly to south-westerly wind change, the Bureau of Meteorology’s Rose Barr said.

“Between Thursday and Saturday we are starting to see severe heatwave conditions in the southern parts of the state, extending over a more significant area of NSW into the weekend and next week,” she said.

“Some areas are forecast to reach extreme heatwave conditions.

“With the increasing heat and winds, the fire danger will worsen into the new week, with Monday and Tuesday most likely to be the most significant fire weather days.”

The forecast for dangerous conditions overlaps with New Year’s Eve, one of the busiest periods of the year for holidaymakers escaping the city for campgrounds, national parks and state forests.

The NSW Rural Fire Service took advantage of milder weather on Christmas Day to undertake strategic backburning on the western edge of the 500,000 hectare Gospers Mountain megafire, to protect towns such as Bilpin and Blackheath.

More than 1,700 volunteer firefighters spent Christmas Day on fire grounds in NSW and a further 700 were working on the fire effort. As of Wednesday afternoon, there were 74 active bush and grass fires in the state, almost 30 of which were not contained.

In SA, where 87 homes were lost in the Cudlee Creek bushfire on Friday, firefighters from the Country Fire Service (CFS) and the Department of Environment and Water were patrolling the active fire grounds in the Adelaide Hills and on Kangaroo Island, and putting out flare-ups.

Where possible, the CFS said, volunteers were given a rest day in preparation for worse conditions early next week.

“It is really hot but it is not windy,” CFS spokeswoman Simone Macdonald said. “These little flare-ups will happen because it is so hot and there are so many places within the fire ground that have not been burned.

“Our concern is, we are looking by Saturday and Sunday and into Monday, to see a return to those dangerous conditions.”

Strategic burning took place along the northern sections of the fire, while a combination of bulldozers and firefighters armed with rake hoes built containment lines around unburned properties in areas closer to Adelaide.

Heatwave conditions in SA coincide with a forecast for dry thunderstorms, with a chance of fire-starting dry lightning in all areas of the state except the north-east.

“That definitely will add to the fire risk on those days,” BoM senior meteorologist in Adelaide, Brett Gage, said.

 

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