Heatwave sweeps Australian cities and raises bushfire danger

Aerial view of the Cherry Garden fire front in the Adelaide Hills
A bushfire burning in the Adelaide Hills

A heatwave sweeping south-east Australia has sent temperatures soaring in the nation’s biggest cities and escalated the threat of bushfires. A large blaze brought an emergency warning to Adelaide in South Australia on Monday, while neighbouring Victoria faced its worst fire risk in a year.

Victoria’s capital Melbourne reached 30C by 07.30 local time (20.30 Sunday GMYT) ahead of an expected 40C maximum, temperatures in Sydney were also forecast to exceed 30C for a third day. Health officials have urged people to stay inside and to avoid physical activity, and for those near bushfires to avoid inhaling smoke. The blaze in the Adelaide Hills strengthened on Monday on the back of the hot and gusty conditions. It has so far burnt over 2,500 hectares and is believed to have claimed several houses but has not caused injuries, said South Australia’s Country Fire Service. Smoke has also settled over Adelaide, obscuring parts of the city skyline and prompting some residents to wear face masks.

Bushfire smoke covers the Adelaide city skyline
Adelaide was blanketed by smoke on Monday

South Australia health officials warned the smoke posed a “serious threat” to those with chest and heart conditions.

Since the hot spell began on Friday, the Bureau of Meteorology (Bom) has issued heatwave warnings for South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania and Queensland.

Beachgoers at Bronte rock pool and beach in Sydney on 24 January
People in Sydney flocked to beaches on the weekend seeking relief from the heat

The heat is expected to linger until mid-week as the hot air mass tracks east across the country. After extreme bushfires and heatwaves a year ago, Australia’s summer this year has so far been cooler and wetter. Meteorologists say the conditions are influenced by a La Nina phenomenon. Australia has warmed on average by 1.4C since national records began in 1910, according to its science and weather agencies. That’s led to an increase in the number of extreme heat events, as well as increased fire danger days.

“In summer we now see a greater frequency of very hot days compared to earlier decades,” said BoM and the CSIRO in their 2020 State of the Climate report. The same report noted that 2019 – Australia’s hottest year on record – had 33 days where the national maximum temperature exceeded 39C, that surpassed the total number of days over 39C in the previous six decades. Heatwaves are Australia’s deadliest natural disaster and have killed thousands more people than bushfires or floods.

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