Australia has declared an El Nino weather phenomenon is underway as an unusual September heatwave sent temperatures soaring in the country’s southeast and led to the first total fire ban in three years.
“We are already seeing extreme conditions in some parts of the continent, particularly in the duration of heat,” Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) forecaster Karl Braganza told reporters.
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The state of New South Wales (NSW) has recorded temperatures as much as 16C (60F) above the September average in recent days.
Temperatures in Sydney, Australia’s most populous city, reached 34.4C (93.9F) on Tuesday, just short of the all-time September record of 34.6C (94.3F), set in 1965.
Some 61 bushfires had been reported across NSW as of Tuesday morning, with 13 still to be contained, authorities said.
“Due to stronger than forecast winds along the far South Coast, catastrophic fire danger is expected this afternoon in the region,” the NSW Rural Fire Service said in a statement.
“These are the most dangerous conditions for a fire.”
Forecasters say temperatures are expected to remain high on Wednesday with the strong winds creating some of the riskiest bushfire conditions since the end of 2019 when fires swept through southeastern Australia killing hundreds of millions of native animals and destroying vast tracts of forest and thousands of rural homes.
“We’re in for a tough couple of days, and we need the community to be very vigilant,” NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Rob Rogers told Nine’s Today programme.
Twenty-one schools in NSW, mostly along the state’s southern coast, have been closed because of the danger of fire.
Sydney Harbour was last week shrouded in smoke as firefighters on the city’s fringes lit controlled blazes in an attempt to limit the risk of bushfires ahead of what is expected to be a hot and dry summer in the southern hemisphere.
An El Nino generally causes drier conditions in Australia and is associated with extreme weather events such as cyclones and droughts.
The World Meteorological Organization earlier this year forecast that there was a 90 percent chance of El Nino conditions forming over the second half of 2023.
Australia’s September heatwave is expected to break with the arrival of a cold front with temperatures dropping back to their low 20s on Thursday.
“This summer will be hotter than average, and certainly hotter than the last three years,” the BOM’s Braganza said.
Since the so-called Black Summer bushfires ended in March 2020, Australia has had a series of wetter, cooler summers.