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Australia firefighters accidentally spread blaze ahead of heatwave

The accident occurred about 250 km northwest of Sydney, where firefighters were trying to stop a blaze of some 378,000 hectares reaching communities by employing pre-emptive controlled burning.

FILE: A fire blazes during the bushfires that swept through the region in Healesville, Australia. Picture: Gallo Images/Getty Images

SYDNEY - A backburning operation intended to contain a massive wildfire in eastern Australia sparked out of control, damaging buildings and cutting off major roads, authorities said, as the country heads into another heatwave that may topple temperature records.

The accident occurred about 250 km northwest of Sydney, where firefighters were trying to stop a blaze of some 378,000 hectares reaching communities by employing pre-emptive controlled burning.

“We saw a dramatic shift in conditions, a flare-up of fire, some extraordinary behavior of that fire, and that fire has spread,” New South Wales state Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told the Australian Broadcasting Corp on Monday.

Dozens of buildings were destroyed in the area, Fitzsimmons added, although he did not give an exact figure. There were no new reports of casualties on Monday.

Wildfires have killed at least four people, destroyed more than 680 homes and burned nearly 3 million acres of bushland across eastern Australia since the start of November.

Bushfires are common in Australia’s hot, dry summers, but the ferocity and early arrival of the fires in the southern spring is unprecedented. Experts have said climate change has left bushland tinder-dry.

Spot fires that would normally be contained on their own have been fanned by wind, coming together into what authorities have called megafires to Sydney’s north, west and south, prompting evacuations and sporadically shrouding the country’s biggest city in smoke.

The Bureau of Meteorology warned of severe to extreme heatwave conditions in the inland parts of the country’s south-east, with temperatures expected to approach or exceed a national average record of 40.3 degrees Celsius (105.4 degrees Fahrenheit).

“We saw significant heat build over Western Australia over the course of last week, and that heat is now pushing east over the continent, which is going to lead to several days of exceptional heat,” bureau climatologist Blair Trewin said in a statement.

“We’re closely monitoring the development and progression of this heat but based on current forecasts we could see that record broken this week.”

The Rural Fire Service’s Fitzsimmons said the heat would exacerbate fire danger, and “despite the very best efforts of everyone, we’re not going to able to contain these fires that we’re expecting later in the week.”