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Firefighters battle blazes on 'dangerous day' in Australia

By Hilary Whiteman, CNN
updated 7:31 PM EST, Tue January 8, 2013
  • NEW: Federal government steps in with fuel, personnel to help NSW fire effort
  • More than 130 fires are burning across NSW during one of the hottest days on record
  • 90% of the Australian state is under "severe" or higher fire warnings
  • High temperatures and dry conditions have combined to create "dangerous day"

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(CNN) -- Soaring temperatures and strong winds have combined to create a "catastrophic" fire threat across the southeast Australian state of New South Wales.

Residents have been warned to remain vigilant as temperatures rise towards a predicted high of 43 degrees (109 degrees Fahrenheit) in the state capital of Sydney.

In some areas of the state, winds of more than 70 kilometers an hour (43 mph) were threatening to fan the flames of fires already burning. However, a change in wind direction had caused temperatures in certain parts of the state to fall, offering some relief.

A "catastrophic" fire risk has been declared in four areas of NSW, although the risk across 90% of the state is "severe" or above. A "catastrophic" warning carries the risk of significant loss of life and the destruction of many homes, according to the NSW Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS).

Fire rages across Australian bush
'Catastrophic' fire risk in Australia
A volunteer Rural Fire Service member from Bungendore RFS washes down a emergency service vehicle on January 8, 2013 in Bungendore, Australia. A volunteer Rural Fire Service member from Bungendore RFS washes down a emergency service vehicle on January 8, 2013 in Bungendore, Australia.
Australia battles bush blazes, intense heat
Australia battles bush blazes, intense heat Australia battles bush blazes, intense heat

"I cannot say it more plainly: the risk is real and potentially deadly. People need to act now," the service's Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

The "catastrophic" fire threat had led many to fear a repeat of "Black Saturday" in 2009, when soaring temperatures and high winds fanned the flames of a series of bushfires across the state of Victoria, leaving 173 people dead and 500 injured, and destroying thousands of homes.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Australian government announced that the state fire service would be granted access to Defence Force bases, fuel and personnel as part of the federal government disaster response plan.

Earlier, Prime Minister Julia Gillard warned it was "dangerous" day and urged people to "stay focused."

"The word catastrophic is being used for good reason," Gillard told CNN affiliate the Seven Network.

"It is very important that people keep themselves safe, that they listen to local authorities and local warnings."

Total fire bans were place in the states of NSW, Victoria and across the whole of Tasmania, the southern island state ravaged by fire in recent days.

On Tuesday afternoon, more than 130 fires were burning throughout NSW, with over 40 of those yet to be controlled, according to NSW RFS.

There were no reports of any homes having being destroyed but authorities warned that the dry, hot conditions were expected to stretch into the night.

"It's a long way ahead -- we've got a lot of daylight left and a lot of nighttime left under these conditions," Fitzsimmons said.

Thousands of firefighters were battling blazes on the ground, and more than 40 aircraft and 250 fire trucks had been deployed, a fire service spokeswoman said.

Thousands more firefighters were on standby in high risk areas, including 21 "strike teams," each consisting of five tankers to assist local brigades.

The fire service said it was relying on people to report fires in their areas, but that surveillance flights were also monitoring the landscape for smoke and flames.

Authorities said residents and tourists had responded well to early warnings to abandon properties under threat.

"If you are in a bushfire risk area -- if you are an at risk location, leaving early is the safest option," Fitzsimmons said.

Record high temperatures and the delayed state of the Australian monsoon season have created a tinderbox out of large swathes of bush and scrub land across the state.

The last four months of 2012 were "abnormally hot" across Australia, according to the Australian Bureau of Meterology. Average maximum temperatures were the highest since records began in 1910.

In the first days of the new year, extreme heat contributed to the spread of fires across Tasmania.

Firefighters are still on alert, tackling a number of blazes, as residents who were in the path of the earlier fires returned to the charred rubble of their homes. More than 100 properties were destroyed or damaged, though authorities warn more may be at risk.

Rescue workers are continuing to search for human remains as around 100 people have still not contacted friends or family, according to Tasmania police.

"It's vitally important that all people who were in the area at the time, and are OK, self-register their details with the National Registration and Inquiry Service operated by the Red Cross," said Acting Deputy Commissioner Donna Adams.

Meanwhile, police have charged a 31-year-old man for allegedly causing one of the worst of the fires by leaving a campfire unattended that was not completely extinguished.

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