By Byron Kaye and Colin Packham
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian authorities warned on Friday of severe fire danger in densely populated areas this weekend, declaring a state of emergency in the capital, Canberra, as soaring temperatures and strong whipped up huge, unpredictable blazes.
With temperatures above 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), emergency officials urged people to prepare for fires in parts of the southeast including hundreds of miles of coast south of Sydney that has already been badly hit in months of blazes.
“Tomorrow will be the peak of the heatwave in NSW with some areas expected to reach extreme heatwave conditions,” the New South Wales (NSW) state Rural Fire Service said in a Facebook post late on Friday.
Australia’s bushfires that have killed 33 people and an estimated 1 billion native animals since September. About 2,500 homes have been destroyed as more than 11.7 million hectares (117,000 sq km) have been razed.
Andrew Barr, chief minister of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), said the area’s first state of emergency since fatal wildfires in 2003 indicated the danger this weekend. Four people were killed and almost 500 homes destroyed in 2003.
Officials said an out-of-control fire in the ACT’s south, on the doorstep of Canberra, had grown to 185 sq km, almost 8% of the territory’s land mass.
“This fire may become very unpredictable. It may become uncontrollable,” Barr said in a televised briefing. “The combination of extreme heat, wind, and a dry landscape will place suburbs in Canberra’s south at risk.”
The state of emergency will run for 72 hours, giving authorities greater powers to order evacuations, close roads and take control of property.
Victoria state, which adjoins NSW and ACT, is also expected to see heatwave conditions on the weekend.
In neighboring New Zealand, where smoke from the Australian blazes has turned glaciers brown, firefighters were battling to contain about 25 fires that spread rapidly to cover about 100 hectares on the South Island. Heatwave conditions were also forecast for much of the country over the weekend.
Main events on Friday in the bushfire crisis:
** There were 60 active fires in NSW, one at emergency level, 27 in Victoria, of which three were at emergency level.
** Temperatures in Canberra and the southern states of Tasmania and Victoria reached above 40C (104F) on Friday. The hot weather is forecast to continue over the weekend.
** The Australian Energy Market Operator, attempting to prevent supply shortages, urged people in Victoria to restrict energy use on Friday evening when demand is expected to peak because of unusually high humidity.
** Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who critics say has not done enough to address the impact of climate change, on Friday pledged funding for emissions reduction projects as part of a A$2 billion ($1.37 billion) package to increase gas supplies in NSW.
(Reporting by Byron Kaye and Colin Packham in Sydney, additional reporting by Praveen Menon in Wellington; Editing by Alistair Bell and Jane Wardell)