Australia braces for 'catastrophic' wildfire day, many missing

Oz bushfire

Australia was bracing on Monday for days of "catastrophic" fire and heatwave conditions, with fires already burning in five states and as a search continued for people missing after devastating wildfires in the island state of Tasmania.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard toured fire-ravaged Tasmanian townships and promised emergency aid for survivors, who told of a "fireball" that engulfed communities across the thinly-populated state on Friday and Saturday.

"The trees just exploded," local man Ashley Zanol told Australian radio, recounting a wall of flames that surrounded his truck as he carted water to assist fire crews in the hard-hit township of Murdunna, largely levelled in the inferno.

Tasmanian police said around 100 people feared missing in bushfires had been accounted for and there had so far been no deaths as authorities combed through still-smouldering ruins of homes and vehicles, while evacuating local people and tourists.

Bushfires were ablaze in five of Australia's six states, with 90 fires in the most populous state New South Wales, and in mountain forests around the national capital Canberra.

Severe fire conditions were forecast for Tuesday, replicating those of 2009, when "Black Saturday" wildfires in Victoria state killed 173 people and caused $4.4 billion worth of damage.

A record heatwave, which began in Western Australia on Dec. 27 and lasted eight days, was the fiercest in more than 80 years in that state and has spread east across the nation, making it the widest-ranging heatwave in more than a decade, according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

Tuesday would bring the highest "catastrophic" bushfire temperature conditions, said fire officials, under which people are advised to flee if fire threatens, as the blaze is likely to be too fierce for fire crews to easily extinguish. "Any fire that burns under the predicted conditions 40 degree (Celsius) temperatures (104 Fahrenheit), below 10 per cent humidity, winds gusting over 70 kilometres an hour (43mph) those conditions are by any measure horrendous," said New South

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