SYDNEY – Australian authorities declared a seven-day state of emergency in New South Wales state Thursday as a record heat wave fanned unprecedented bush fires raging across the region.
Some 100 fires have been burning for weeks in the state, with half of those uncontained, including a “mega-blaze” ringing Sydney, covering Australia’s biggest city in a haze of toxic smoke.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the state of emergency, the second declared in the state since an early, drought-fueled bush-fire season began in September, was due to “catastrophic weather conditions.”
The country experienced its hottest day on record Tuesday, with average nationwide temperatures reaching 40.9 degrees Celsius (105.6 degrees Fahrenheit), beating the previous record of 40.3, set in January 2013.
Australia then surpassed the new mark by a full degree on Wednesday, when the average national temperature was 41.9 degrees, officials said Thursday.
This fresh record, too, is expected to be surpassed as an intensifying heat wave spreads across the east.
Turbulent winds of up to 100 kilometers per hour (60 miles per hour) are meanwhile expected to fan bush fires burning ever-closer to the city.
There are 2,000 firefighters battling the blazes with the support of U.S. and Canadian teams, as well as Australia Defence Force personnel.
New South Wales Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said a crew of five firefighters battling a fast-moving blaze had been injured after being enveloped by flames on Thursday. Two seriously injured men had been airlifted to a specialist burn unit, and a woman was rushed to a nearby hospital.
Fitzsimmons said some firefighters had been left “shattered” after losing their own homes while saving other properties.
The extreme weather is also causing major health concerns, with leading doctors this week labeling the smoke haze that has shrouded Sydney for weeks a “public health emergency.”
Hospitals have been recording large increases in emergency room visits for respiratory problems, including a dramatic 80 percent spike when air quality plummeted Dec. 10.
Fires are also raging across Queensland state to the north of NSW, including one at Peregian, near the coastal tourist hub of Noosa, that forced people to flee their homes Wednesday. Bush fires are also burning in South Australia and Western Australia.
At least 3 million hectares (7.4 million acres) of land has been torched across Australia in recent months, with six people killed and more than 800 homes destroyed.
Scientists say the blazes have come earlier and with more intensity than usual due to global warming and a prolonged drought that has left the land tinder-dry and many towns running out of water.
The fires have sparked climate protests targeting the conservative government, which has resisted pressure to address the root causes of global warming in order to protect the country’s lucrative coal export industry.
On Thursday, hundreds of climate protesters marched on Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s official residence in Sydney to demand curbs on greenhouse gas emissions.
They also sought to highlight his absence on an overseas vacation as large parts of the country burn.