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Australians urged to 'leave early' in face of new bushfire threat

Residents of Victoria state's fire-ravaged east were urged to leave before another heatwave raises the bushfire danger Friday.

Cars line up to leave the town of Batemans Bay in New South Wales to head north on 2 January 2020. Picture: AFP

SYDNEY - Australian officials issued fresh evacuation warnings Wednesday ahead of a forecast spike in the intensity of out-of-control bushfires that have devastated vast swathes of countryside and sent smoke clouds as far away as Brazil.

Residents of Victoria state's fire-ravaged east were urged to leave before another heatwave raises the bushfire danger Friday, while in South Australia state authorities began relocating people from a small community on Kangaroo Island.

"Leave, and leave early," Victoria police minister Lisa Neville urged those in the danger zone.

"Everything we've done in terms of... issuing warnings has been about saving lives, and today I'm asking people to continue to heed the messages that we are giving."

The catastrophic bushfires have been fuelled by a crippling drought that has turned forests to tinder and exacerbated by climate change, which scientists say is increasing the length and intensity of Australia's fire season.

Authorities on Wednesday confirmed that a fourth firefighter had died while battling the blazes, bringing the overall death toll to 26 people.

More than 2,000 homes have been destroyed since the crisis began in September and some eight million hectares has been burned, an area the size of Ireland or South Carolina.

University of Sydney scientists estimate one billion animals have been killed in the fires. The figure includes mammals, birds and reptiles, but not frogs, insects or invertebrates.

Smoke from the fires has been spotted more than 12,000 kilometres away in Brazil and Argentina, weather authorities in the South American countries said.