Record temperatures across southern Australia cooled on Wednesday, reducing the danger from scores of raging wildfires but likely bringing only a brief reprieve from the summer’s extreme heat and fire risk.
Australia had its hottest day on record on Monday with a nationwide average of 40.33 degrees Celsius, narrowly breaking a 1972 record of 40.17 degrees Celsius.
“There’s little doubt that this is a very, very extreme heat wave event,” said David Jones, manager of climate monitoring and prediction at the Bureau of Meteorology.
“If you look at its extent, its duration, its intensity, it is arguably the most significant in Australia’s history,” he added.
Cooler conditions brought relief to firefighters, who were battling around 200 fires across Australia’s southeast, and gave them the chance to build earth breaks to try to contain the blazes. The risk from fire was expected increase later in the week as temperatures again rise.
No deaths have been reported from the wildfires, although around 100 people haven’t been accounted for since last week when a blaze destroyed around 90 homes in the Tasmanian town of Dunalley, east of the state capital of Hobart. On Wednesday, police spokesperson Lisa Stingel said it was likely most of those people simply haven’t checked in with officials.
“There are no reports of missing persons in circumstances that cause us to have grave fears for their safety at this time,” Tasmania Police Acting Commissioner Scott Tilyard said in a statement.
The fires have been most devastating in Tasmania, where at least 128 homes have been destroyed since Friday and more than 198,000 acres burned. Hundreds of people remain at two evacuation centres in the state’s south.
“People have lost everything. We can’t comprehend that devastation unless we are in their shoes,” Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings said.
In Victoria state, a fire injured six people, destroyed nine homes and caused the evacuation of the farming community of Carngham west of the city of Ballarat, the Country Fire Authority said.
In New South Wales, firefighters were battling 141 fires, including 31 that had not yet been contained. Fires burning out of control near the towns of Cooma, Yass and Shoalhaven were the most concerning.
Wildfires are common during the Australian summer. Fires in February 2009 killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes in Victoria.