SYDNEY (Reuters) - The drought sweeping through large tracts of Australia is set to intensify over the next three months and is fuelling unseasonal winter bushfires, the leading meteorological agency and a fire official said on Thursday.
The Bureau of Meteorology forecast of more warm, dry weather suggests hopes for a reprieve from what farmers describe as the worst drought they have ever seen are unlikely to be realized before the Australian summer.
An unusually warm winter followed by what is expected to be a warmer-than-average spring “would mean intensification of the existing drought conditions across parts of eastern Australia”, the bureau’s outlook report said.
The report forecast below-average rainfall for large parts of Australia until November, the early part of the southern hemisphere summer.
Record-low rainfall in some regions and successive seasons of above-average temperatures have blighted vast tracts of Australia’s grazing and crop land.
All of New South Wales, the country’s most populous state that accounts for a quarter of Australia’s agricultural output by value, is officially in drought.
Firefighters there were battling 81 grass and bushfires on Thursday, 38 of which remained uncontained, authorities said. While none of the fires posed threats to people or property, it was still an unusual event for the Australian winter.
Almost 650 firefighters were working on the blazes, helped by more than 40 aircraft.
New South Wales Rural Fire Service Inspector Ben Shepherd said the drought had had a “significant effect” on the bushfires and was set to continue.
“There is no real positive outlook at the moment, especially when you do look at the three-month temperature and rainfall outlook,” Shepherd told Reuters.
“We need a significant amount of rain across New South Wales, not from just the drought aspect but also from the fire aspect,” he said.
Australia sent about 100 firefighters to California on Aug. 3 to help American authorities battle deadly wildfires sweeping the northwest of the United States, suggesting that authorities did not expect bushfires at home in the southern winter.
Shepherd said the size and number of fires in Australia were typical of late summer.
“We’re seeing fires on the far south coast (of New South Wales) that we wouldn’t typically see until sometimes as late as January or February, so what we’re seeing is very unusual,” he said.
Australia recorded its fifth-driest July on record last month. It was the driest January-to-July period in New South Wales since 1965 and marked seven consecutive months of below-average rainfall for the state.
Reporting by Erin Cooper; Editing by Paul Tait