By Rod McGuirk with 3 News online staff
Australia’s southern states are forecast to get a reprieve from the extreme heat, after the country recorded its hottest day ever yesterday.
The Australian Bureau of Meterology says Sydney's expected high today is just 25degC, a sharp drop from yesterday's top temperature of 42.3degC. The bureau extended its weather scale, adding new colours to extend its temperature range to 54degC.
But further north in Queensland, 35,000 rural firefighters are on standby as the heatwave approaches. Temperatures in the state’s southwest are forecast to reach the high 40s today.
There are currently no emergency warnings in New South Wales, but authorities are warning that with many fires still burning, the danger is not over yet.
“It's been a long busy night for firefighters on the ground, for incident controllers working out of those fire control centres and of course the communities affected by these fires," NSW rural fire commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told ABC News.
The Sydney Morning Herald reports that police arrested three teenagers, two aged 15 and one 16, over what they believe was a deliberately lit fire in Shalvey, western Sydney.
It took 15 fire crews and five police cars more than two hours to bring the fire under control.
A 70-year-old man in Illawarra was charged with breaching the total fire ban after he allegedly lit a cooking fire and tried to prevent police putting it out.
No deaths have been reported, although officials in Tasmania were still trying to find about 100 people who have been unaccounted for since last week when a fire tore through the small town of Dunalley, east of the state capital of Hobart, destroying around 90 homes. Police have found no bodies during preliminary checks of the ruined houses and are asking tourists and locals who left the area to register with authorities.
However there are reports of around 1000 dead animals, mostly sheep and cattle.
Wildfires are common during the Australian summer. The combination of soaring temperatures and dry, windy conditions since Friday have sparked fires that burned 20,000 hectares of forests and farmland across southern Tasmania.
In New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, the fires scorched more than 55,000 hectares. All state forests and national parks were closed as a precaution and total fire bans were in place.
In Victoria state, where fires in February 2009 killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes, officials said two people were treated for minor burns and four were treated for smoke inhalation.
Up to 20 properties in the town of Chepstowe west of Melbourne reportedly were hit by a fire, although it was too early to know the extent of the damage, a Victoria Country Fire Authority spokeswoman said.
More than 130 fires were blazing across New South Wales, though only a few dozen houses were threatened as night fell. One home was destroyed in the village of Jugiong, northwest of the capital of Canberra, fire officials said.
A fire was burning near about 30 homes near the small town of Cooma, south of Canberra. Cooma-Monaro shire Mayor Dean Lynch told Australia's Sky News some residents had evacuated to the nearby town of Nimmitabel.
Wind gusts of more than 100km/h were recorded in some parts of the state, although a cool front moving across the region late Tuesday brought some relief and raised hopes that New South Wales might avoid major damage.
"If we get through today without loss of life and loss of property, we'll have had a remarkable escape from what could have been," New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell told the Seven Network.
Many residents in the town of Tarcutta, about 200km west of Canberra, took shelter at a community centre. Eva Toth, owner of the Tarcutta Halfway Motor Inn, opted instead to hunker down inside the office for a sleepless night next to her motel. She was ready to jump in her car if word came that the flames were close.
"The wind is just unbelievable. It just suddenly comes like a whirly, twirly tornado," she said by telephone. "To live this is really frightening. When you walk into my place, you can smell the smoke even in my house."
One volunteer firefighter suffered severe burns to his hands and face while fighting a grass fire near Gundaroo village, about 220km southwest of Sydney, on Monday. He was flown to a hospital in Sydney for treatment.
Fitzsimmons, the fire commissioner, said the firefighter's condition had improved Tuesday and he should be released from the hospital in the next few days.
AP / 3 News