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Australia declares El Niño as spring heatwave raises concerns over wildfires

SYDNEY – Australia declared Tuesday that an El Niño weather pattern was underway as the country’s southeast sweltered. an intense spring heat wave which increased the risk of forest fires and led authorities to issue a complete fire ban in Sydney.

Australia had refrained from declaring an El Niño, but has been preparing for a warm, dry spring and summer in the southern hemisphere in 2023, after three years of heavy rain and frequent flooding. The expected dry weather could affect wheat production in Australia, one of the world’s top exporters, with winter wheat harvesting starting in November.

“We are already seeing extreme conditions in some parts of the continent, particularly during the duration of the heat. We have had a long period of warm, dry weather to start spring,” Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) forecaster Karl Braganza told reporters.

Australia’s last two fire seasons have been quiet compared to the “Black Summer” bushfires of 2019-2020 that destroyed an area the size of Turkey and killed 33 people.

The Climate Prediction Center of the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) declared an El Niño event in June. The BoM uses different, slightly stricter metrics to declare El Niño.

The BoM’s declaration of El Niño, typically associated with extreme weather events from forest fires to cyclones and droughts, comes amid a five-day burst of rare spring warmth in parts of the country. The heat wave is forecast to last until Wednesday, raising temperatures well above the September average.

Several regions have received high fire danger ratings as authorities warned that strong winds could spark wildfires and urged residents to minimize fire risks in their homes.

More than 500 firefighters and emergency personnel are trying to control 61 fires across New South Wales state as of Tuesday morning, and 13 are still not contained, officials said.

21 schools have been closed in New South Wales, most in the south of the state. Fire danger ratings on the south coast have been raised to “catastrophic” due to stronger than expected winds.

“It’s the biggest risk we’ve faced since the 2019-20 fire season,” NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Rob Rogers told Sky News.

Sydney is expected to record five consecutive record high daytime temperatures of more than 30 degrees C in September, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

Temperatures could reach 34 degrees C in Sydney on Tuesday, just shy of the September record of 34.6 degrees C in 1965. But a cold front starting on Thursday will bring some relief from the heat, pushing temperatures into the 20s. degrees. REUTERS

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