Less than three weeks after the official start of spring in Australia, temperatures in many towns have set records, some as high as 60 degrees above normal. Ski resorts have closed weeks ahead of schedule. At the Sydney Marathon over the weekend, dozens of people were hospitalized after running in a heat wave.
On Tuesday, the authorities said the state of New South Wales was experiencing “catastrophic” fire conditions on its southern coast, with high winds and temperatures approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit. They ordered 20 schools to close and residents in Sydney, the capital of New South Wales, not to light fires outdoors. Firefighters were already battling dozens of blazes across the country.
And in a possible omen for the months ahead, they also officially declared the arrival of the El Niño weather pattern, heralding the first hot and dry summer in the continent in three years.
Australia is bracing for a particularly dangerous fire season four years after the deadly Black Summer, when wildfires killed or were blamed for the deaths of nearly 500 people and scorched more than 60 million acres. The previous few seasons have had cooler and wetter La Niña conditions.
“We are already seeing extreme conditions in some parts of the continent, particularly in the duration of heat,” said Karl Braganza, a spokesman for the national Bureau of Meteorology. “We’ve had an extended period of warm and dry weather to start spring.”
Conditions have not been deemed as high-risk yet as those that led to the Black Summer, which had been preceded by several years of drought, Mr. Braganza said. Still, he said, parts of New South Wales where vegetation had dried out faced elevated risk.
The area most at risk currently is the far south coast — an area which burned during the Black Summer fires — where 20 schools were closed on Tuesday. A “catastrophic” fire danger rating was announced for the region because of the combination of the high temperatures, abundance of dry vegetation and strong winds.
“For your survival, avoid being in bush and grass fire risk areas today,” the New South Wales Rural Fire Service said on Facebook on Tuesday. “These are the most dangerous conditions for a fire.”
Last week, Sydney experienced some of the worst air quality in the world as firefighters raced to conduct controlled burns across swathes of New South Wales before conditions became too hot.
Experts say that the vegetation that grew and flourished during three years of wet and cool La Niña conditions is now drying out as Australia experiences El Niño conditions, creating potential fuel for the fires. At the same time, a warming planet means that firefighters have an ever-narrower window to do controlled burns.
The authorities are struggling to adjust to these conditions, said David Bowman, a University of Tasmania professor and one of Australia’s leading fire management experts.
“We’re absolutely not prepared,” for the fire season ahead, he said. “We’re not doing the necessary work at the speed we need to do the work, relative to the rate of climate change.”
He added that outside his window, in the distance, “I’m watching a fire developing as we speak, and it’s quite interesting.”
Several other wildfires were also burning in Tasmania on Tuesday, including an uncontrolled blaze on the east side of the island state, near the popular tourist area of Coles Bay, where authorities had asked residents to evacuate.
In the state of Queensland, emergency evacuation warnings were issued for the towns of Emerald and Beerwah on Sunday as large fires raged. Both blazes were under control by Monday, and no property damage was reported. But authorities warn that the fire risk will increase on Thursday and Friday, with temperatures in some parts of the state expected to reach 97 degrees.
The death toll from the Black Summer wildfires included 33 direct deaths and almost 450 more through smoke inhalation.