Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales (NSW) has declared a seven-day state of emergency as oppressive conditions fanned around 100 wildfires.
Around 2,000 firefighters were battling the blazes, half of which remain uncontrolled, with the support of US and Canadian backup teams and personnel from the Australian Defence Force.
The last state of emergency ran for seven days in mid-November amid “catastrophic” fire risk and was the first implemented in NSW since 2013.
Central Sydney reached a maximum of 39 degrees Celsius (102 Fahrenheit) on 19 December while outer suburbs scorched at 42 Celsius (108 F).
A statewide total fire ban announced on 17 December will remain in place until midnight on 21 December.
Around three million hectares (7.4m acres) of land has burnt nationwide during a torrid past few months, with six people killed and more than 800 homes destroyed.
The annual Australian fire season, which peaks during the southern hemisphere summer, started early after an unusually warm and dry winter.
NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian said authorities were concerned with the unpredictable conditions.
“With extreme wind conditions, extreme hot temperatures, we have a good idea, a good sense, of where the most concerning areas are, but again when you’ve got those turbulent conditions, embers and spot fires can occur very unpredictably,” she told reporters.
Sydney’s air pollution levels on 19 December ranged from poor to hazardous. During the past month, hazardous smoke has often blanketed Australia’s most populous city and made its iconic skyline barely visible.
Hospitals have recorded a 10% increase in visits from patients with respiratory conditions during the past week.
The Australian Medical Association has recommended people keep hydrated, cool and out of the sun.
Wildfires are also burning in Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia.
The Bureau of Meteorology said 17 December was the hottest day on record in Australia with an average of 40.9 Celsius (105.6 F) nationwide.
Western Australia’s capital, Perth, is experiencing its hottest December on record, with average temperatures for the month at 36 Celsius (97 F) – seven degrees above the mean.
The city of Adelaide is currently experiencing a four-day heatwave, reaching 45 Celsius (113 F) on 19 December.
The unprecedented conditions has reignited criticism of the Australian conservative government’s inaction on the climate crisis. Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal and liquefied natural gas.
Protesters on 19 December camped outside Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Sydney residence demanding urgent action on the climate emergency.
Morrison, who is on holidays, conceded last week that “climate change along with many other factors” contributed to the wildfires.
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