The Australian capital region has declared a state of emergency as authorities warn of severe fire danger in densely populated areas this weekend.
It is the first fire emergency for the Australian Capital Territory area since 2003 when wildfires killed four people and destroyed almost 500 homes in a single day.
The threat is posed by a blaze on Canberra’s southern fringe that has razed more than 21,500 hectares (53,000 acres) since it was sparked by heat from a military helicopter landing light on Monday, the Emergency Services Agency said.
With temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), emergency officials on Friday urged people to prepare for fires in parts of the southeast, including hundreds of miles of coast south of Sydney that has already been badly hit in months of blazes.
“Tomorrow will be the peak of the heatwave in NSW with some areas expected to reach extreme heatwave conditions,” the New South Wales (NSW) state Rural Fire Service said in a Facebook post late on Friday.
Australia’s bushfires have killed 33 people and an estimated one billion native animals since September. About 2,500 homes have been destroyed as more than 11.7 million hectares (29 million acres) of forest land have been razed.
Andrew Barr, chief minister of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), said the area’s first state of emergency since fatal wildfires in 2003 indicated the danger this weekend. Four people were killed and almost 500 homes destroyed in 2003.
Officials said an out-of-control fire in the ACT’s south, on the doorstep of Canberra, had grown to 185 square kilometres, almost 8 percent of the territory’s landmass.
“This fire may become very unpredictable. It may become uncontrollable,” Barr said in a televised briefing. “The combination of extreme heat, wind, and a dry landscape will place suburbs in Canberra’s south at risk.”
The state of emergency will run for 72 hours, giving authorities greater powers to order evacuations, close roads and take control of property.
Victoria state, which adjoins NSW and ACT, is also expected to see heatwave conditions on the weekend.
In neighbouring New Zealand, where smoke from the Australian blazes has turned glaciers brown, firefighters were battling to contain about 25 fires that spread rapidly to cover about 100 hectares (247 acres) on the South Island.
Heatwave conditions were also forecast for much of the country over the weekend.