Heatwave, strong winds fan Australia bushfire threat

Thousands of firefighters were preparing for the worst with temperatures expected to soar (AFP Photo/PETER PARKS)

Sydney (AFP) - High temperatures and strong winds were expected to fan massive bushfires blazing across southeastern Australia on Friday, as authorities issued new emergency warnings after several days of cooler conditions brought some reprieve to affected communities.

Thousands of firefighters were preparing for the worst with temperatures expected to soar above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in parts of New South Wales and Victoria states and with a late southerly change forecast to bring damaging winds.

"The conditions are difficult today. It's the hot, dry winds that will prove once again to be the real challenge," New South Wales Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters.

"We are going to see winds coming through around about 35-50 kilometres per hour (around 20-30 miles per hour), gusting up to 70-90 (kilometres) an hour, in some areas... and we are going to see that through most of the day."

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said there were more than 130 fires burning in the state, with just over 50 not yet under control.

In neighbouring Victoria state, evacuation orders were issued for some areas near the New South Wales border over an uncontained blaze.

Officials in Victoria on Thursday had extended a "state of disaster" declaration for a further 48 hours ahead of Friday's forecast of scorching temperatures.

On Kangaroo Island off South Australia state, the largest town was cut off as firefighters battled out-of-control infernos, forcing some residents to flee to the local jetty.

The catastrophic bushfires have killed at least 26 people, destroyed more than 2,000 homes and scorched some eight million hectares (80,000 square kilometres) -- an area the size of Ireland.

University of Sydney scientists estimate one billion animals have been killed in the fires. The figure includes mammals, birds and reptiles, but not frogs, insects or invertebrates.

The severe fire conditions have been fuelled by a prolonged drought and worsened by climate change, with experts warning that such massive blazes were becoming more frequent and intense.

Australia experienced its driest and hottest year on record in 2019, with its highest average maximum temperature of 41.9 degrees Celsius (107.4 degrees Fahrenheit) recorded in mid-December.