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  • 14 January 2014, 10:15

Australia Heatwave Sparks Bushfire Danger

A major heatwave is heading towards southern Australia with authorities warning the region could face some of the worst fire danger since a 2009 inferno which killed 173 people.

Temperatures are set to reach as high as 45C (113F) this week, with forecasters describing the situation as "severe to extreme heatwave conditions".

The last time such a heatwave hit the state of Victoria in 2009 the so-called Black Saturday firestorm flattened entire villages and destroyed more than 2,000 homes.

Acting state premier Peter Ryan said: "These next four days promise to be amongst the most significant that we have faced in Victoria since Black Saturday."

Tens of thousands of firefighters were on standby, and 1,290 brigades were in a "state of high preparedness", he added, with the peak danger day expected on Friday when very strong winds are forecast.

"We are alive to the fact that we face these challenges over the course of these coming four days, including today. But on the other hand we are well prepared, we are ready to go," Mr Ryan said.

Bushfires on the west coast of Australia have already destroyed more than 50 houses, and one person died while defending his home from the flames.

It is thought the major blaze could have been started by a problem with a power line.

Hospitals and emergency authorities are on standby for an influx of heat-related call-outs, with Ambulance Victoria urging people with non-threatening medical conditions to seek alternative treatment.

The service has already seen a 10% jump in the number of call outs expected at this time of year.

Operations manager Paul Holman said: "We have recalled all available staff, every available vehicle will be on the road."

The extreme temperatures could even force tennis matches to be cancelled at the Australian Open, which is currently under way in Melbourne.

Wildfires and hot weather are common in Australia's December-February summer months, but the current event is unusual because it is occurring in what is supposed to be a neutral period in the El Nino pattern bringing average conditions.

El Nino, a phenomenon characterised by unusually warm ocean temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific, is generally associated with hotter, drier conditions in Australia.

Last year in Australia was officially the hottest year on record with numerous temperatures being broken.

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