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Fires rage on as Australia sizzles with triple-digit temperatures

January 08, 2013|By Emily Alpert
  • A firefighter wearing protective clothing is nearly surrounded by flames as he protects a property being threatened by the Dean's Gully fire near the town of Wandandian in New South Wales, Australia, on Tuesday.
A firefighter wearing protective clothing is nearly surrounded by flames… (Dean Lewins / European Pressphoto…)

Scores of fires continued to rage across southeastern Australia on Tuesday as the country sizzled under scorching heat. More than a dozen were still burning out of control late in the day, as firefighters battled to squelch flames sweeping through dry grasses and scrubland in New South Wales.

No deaths were reported, but Australian officials warned that the threat had not yet passed. “The word catastrophic is being used for good reason … This is a very dangerous day,” Prime Minister Julia Gillard told Australian journalist David Koch.

Over the past week, the searing heat wave has smashed records, exceeding 115 degrees Fahrenheit in some areas, the Australian national meteorological service reported Tuesday. On Monday, the average maximum temperature across the entire country topped 104 degrees.

It was so hot that Australian officials decided to add new colors to their weather maps in case the mercury crept still higher, the Sydney Morning Herald reported – a deep purple and neon purple to mark predicted temperatures beyond 50 degrees Celsius, or 122 degrees Fahrenheit.

Wildfires swept through the Australian island of Tasmania in earlier days, destroying homes and buildings. Though scores of people are still missing from the island, Tasmania police and fire officials told Australian media that some may have simply traveled out of the area, since no bodies have been found in the charred wreckage.

The extent of damage caused by the fires in southeastern Australian was unclear as of late Tuesday. One home was reportedly lost in the village of Jugiong; and as many as 20 properties west of Melbourne were said to have been hit by fire, a Victoria County Fire Authority spokeswoman told the Associated Press. The Sydney Morning Herald also reported 1,000 dead animals, including sheep and cattle.

Setting fires of any kind has been totally banned in the populous state of New South Wales as the blazes barrel on. Police on Tuesday charged three teenage boys with lighting a fire in the Sydney suburb of Shalvey that took firefighters two and a half hours to tame.

Authorities said they also charged a 70-year-old man in the Illawarra region south of Sydney with using an outdoor cooking stove and repeatedly trying to stop police from extinguishing the flames. Lighting a fire during the ban can trigger fines of at least $2,200 and up to $110,000; those who do so intentionally can face lengthy prison sentences, warned Barry O’Farrell, the New South Wales premier.

“Police will not hesitate to throw the book at those who want to put the safety of the community at risk,” O’Farrell said Monday. “Our emergency services will have their hands full tomorrow as it is – they don’t need their job made even harder by people recklessly and deliberately igniting fires.”

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