Wildfires Hit Australia Amid Worst Heatwave In Decade

Wildfires Hit Australia Amid Worst Heatwave in Decade (Bloomberg, Jan 4, 2012):

Wildfires are sweeping through parts of rural Australia as the biggest heatwave since 2001 spreads across the nation bringing near-record temperatures.

State-wide fire bans are in force in the southern island state of Tasmania and in Victoria, while emergency services issued bushfire alerts across South Australia. The Bureau of Meteorology said the heatwave was moving east across the continent, bringing temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).

“Extreme heat events, such as this one, have wide ranging impacts across agricultural and horticultural sectors, infrastructure and transport, and not least human health and safety,” Alasdair Hainsworth, assistant director of weather services at the bureau, said in an e-mailed statement today. The heatwave will continue into next week, he said.

Australia’s hot, dry climate makes bush fires a major risk in the southern hemisphere’s summer months. The worst fires in Australian history, the so-called Black Saturday blazes, killed 173 people as they swept through rural parts of Victoria state in February 2009.

Crops in Australia, last year’s second-biggest wheat exporter, may escape the worst of the heatwave. Harvesting of winter crops including wheat, barley and canola, is almost complete in southern New South Wales and Victoria, GrainCorp Ltd. (GNC), eastern Australia’s largest grain handler, said Dec. 24. The harvest is virtually complete across most of South Australia, according to Viterra Inc.

‘Catastrophic’ Alert

The Country Fire Service in South Australia raised a “catastrophic” danger alert for three districts, the highest rating that indicates homes would be unable to withstand such a blaze. Emergency crews were battling grass and stubble fires in different parts of the state, according to the CFS website.

Extreme warnings — the second-highest level — were in force in three districts of Victoria, with the remainder of the state under severe alert. The Tasmania Fire Service was battling 11 blazes across the state and urged residents in some areas to leave their homes as a precaution.

As much as 80 percent of the continent is being affected by temperatures higher than 40 degrees Celsius, the most wide- ranging heatwave since 2001, according to the weather bureau.

The hot weather “may have an impact on dryland cotton, but there’s not much of that around this year,” Paul Deane, an agricultural economist at Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. (ANZ), said by phone from Melbourne yesterday. “It can increase the chance of crop stress, but as long as they’re well irrigated, I don’t know that it potentially has a massive impact.”

Temperatures could top 47 degrees Celsius in South Australia, where a national record of 50.7 degrees Celsius was recorded in 1960, the weather bureau said.

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