Fires threaten Australian cities, alert issued
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Firefighters with aircraft and thermal imaging equipment tackled bushfires in and near Australia's two largest cities late on Friday as the country's densely populated southeast braced for a major heatwave.
Forecasts that searing hot weather over the weekend could bring the worst bushfires for decades put much of the country on alert, with fire bans in three states and warnings that arsonists would be harshly dealt with.
Nursing homes were warned to be ready after several deaths during a heatwave last week. The temperature in the outback town of Ivanhoe in New South Wales (NSW) state is forecast to reach 47 degrees Celsius (116 Fahrenheit) on Saturday and the coastal cities of Sydney and Melbourne will bake under 40-plus Celsius.
Late on Friday, fire fighters said a fire broke out in a national park in the Sydney suburb of Lane Cove, while another hit the city's northern outskirts.
"We are going through mopping up operations at the moment," Superintendant Paul McGuiggan of the NSW fire service told Reuters. "We really want to ensure that through the night there's no chance of others. We have got crews working their way through the bush with thermal imaging cameras."
Aircraft were also water-bombing a fire east of Melbourne where 120 ha (300 acres) of parkland was destroyed, Victoria's Country Fire Authority said.
A spokesman said there were fears the fire in the Bunyip State Park could spread on Saturday. "It is still going. It is not under control," the spokesman said.
BRACED FOR WORST DAY EVER
Tens of thousands of firefighters are on standby to cope with bushfire outbreaks, with authorities in Victoria state warning Saturday's conditions could be worse than those that led to the deadly "Ash Wednesday" fires of 1983, which killed 75.
"It's just going to be probably ... the worst day ever in the history of the state in terms of temperatures and winds," Victoria state premier John Brumby told reporters on Friday.
"The state is just tinder dry, so people need to exercise real commonsense tomorrow, if you don't need to go out don't go out, it's a seriously bad day," he said.
Authorities fear the heatwave, which last week caused major blackouts and left thousands of residents without air conditioning, could again be fatal to the elderly.
There were 22 "sudden deaths" in Adelaide last Friday at the height of the heatwave and several in Melbourne.
"This is about protecting our nation's frail and aged," said Minister for Aging Justine Elliot, in warning nursing homes to prepare for the heatwave. Nursing homes in southeast Australia care for some 170,000 residents.
South Australia's main morgue was now almost full with 71 bodies, a temporary morgue has been hired, and elective surgery delayed as hospitals try to cope with more than 600 heat-related cases, said local media.
Rail authorities in Sydney have ordered a slowdown of the network to try and avoid accidents if rail lines buckle, as they did in last week's heatwave in Melbourne and Adelaide.
Three train lines in Adelaide will be closed on Saturday.
Emergency officials have imposed fire bans in three states, warning that arsonists would be severely dealt with.
"The government obviously has absolutely no tolerance for arsonists," NSW state Emergency Services Minister Steve Whan told reporters.
(Editing by Jeremy Laurence)
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