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Australia heat wave breaks records in Sydney, escalates fire danger across wide area

In a development ominously similar to the events that led to 2019-2020′s devastating wildfires, millions of Australians are sweltering through a record-shattering heat wave that has set off hundreds of wildfires in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland.

The heat has been more notable than the bush fires at this point, with Sydney seeing back-to-back days with temperatures exceeding 104 degrees (40 Celsius) over the weekend, a feat that had not been accomplished before during November in 160 years of record-keeping.

Sydney also saw its hottest November night on record, with the temperature dropping to just 77.5 degrees (25.3 Celsius) on Sunday. In the afternoon, the temperature reached 108.7 degrees (42.6 Celsius) as fire danger reached extreme levels in southeastern New South Wales.

Typically, Australia's hottest weather comes during January, which is the height of the summer in the Southern Hemisphere.

The ongoing heat wave is forecast to continue through at least midweek across New South Wales and Queensland, according to Dean Narramore, a meteorologist at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

Narramore said the heat is expected to peak in southeastern Queensland and northeastern New South Wales on Wednesday, with temperatures up to 32 degrees (18 Celsius) above average for this time of year. Temperatures in inland areas are expected to soar above 113 degrees (45 Celsius).

"While bursts of heat and heat waves are normal for this time of year, what's making this burst of heat exceptional is temperatures up to 18 degrees above average and many locations breaking records," Narramore said in a video posted on the bureau's website.

Numerous additional temperature records are still expected to fall during this event.

A few locations set spring records over the weekend, including Andamooka in South Australia, which reached 118.4 degrees (48 Celsius), according to Ben Domensino of the private Australian weather company Weatherzone.

Heat waves like this one can rapidly dry out vegetation, elevating wildfire risk.

Australia saw massive bush fires last year, but that does not preclude big fires from occurring this season. Shane Fitzsimmons, New South Wales's Commissioner of Resilience and the former Rural Fire Service commissioner, told the Sydney Morning Herald that most of the state is still prone to bush fires.

"We've still got more than 90% of the state that's susceptible to fire," he said. Of the heat wave and smattering of wildfires, Fitzsimmons added: "It was an ominous weekend, an ominous sign for the weeks and months ahead."

Last season's bush fires were so severe they lofted particles high into the stratosphere, with smoke circling the globe several times. Studies have likened the blazes to simulating the mushroom cloud effects of a nuclear blast.

Heat waves and more severe and longer-lasting wildfires are two of the expected consequences for Australia of human-caused climate change. A recent report from the BOM found that Australia's climate has warmed an average of 2.6 degrees (1.44 Celsius) since 1910, "leading to an increase in the frequency of extreme heat events."

That report also found that there has been an uptick in "extreme fire weather," which refers to days when high winds, hot temperatures and dry conditions overlap, as well as a lengthening of the fire season. This is especially the case in southern Australia, the report found.

Published : November 30, 2020

By : The Washington Post Andrew Freedman