A drop in temperatures helped firefighters battling blazes across Australia Wednesday but up to 30 wildfires were still raging out of control, destroying homes and forcing people to flee.
After facing one of the highest-risk fire days in its history on Tuesday, residents in the hard-hit state of New South Wales woke to much cooler conditions as a southerly change dropped temperatures significantly.
Australia recorded its hottest day on record on Monday with a nationwide average of 40.33 degrees, narrowly breaking a 1972 record of 40.17. While temperatures topped 42 in Sydney Tuesday, they were forecast to peak at just 25 a day later, while Victorian capital Melbourne was down to 20.
Much of southern Australia had been enduring a summer heat wave. Temperatures have soared so high in recent days that the Bureau of Meteorology was forced to add new colours – deep purple and pink – to its charts for forecasts above the previous limit of 50 degrees.
No deaths have been reported, although officials in Tasmania were still trying to find about 100 people who have been missing since last week when a fire tore through the small town of Dunalley, east of the state capital of Hobart, destroying around 90 homes. On Tuesday, police found no bodies during preliminary checks of the ruined houses.
The ratings on many bushfires were downgraded Wednesday with none now at the "catastrophic" level, which signifies fires will be uncontrollable, unpredictable and fast-moving, with evacuation the only safe option.
But New South Wales Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons warned against complacency with new fronts breaking out despite the colder weather.
"It's been a long busy night for firefighters," he told ABC television.
"We've still got a lot of fires … and as we speak we're getting reports of new fires that are developing."
Thousands of firefighters worked through the night tackling more than 140 blazes across New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, with 30 of those uncontained.
Wildfires are a fact of life in arid Australia, where 173 people perished in the 2009 Black Saturday firestorm, the nation's worst natural disaster of modern times.
Most are ignited naturally, but in Sydney's west, three teenage boys were charged with deliberately lighting a fire in bushland on Tuesday, a day when there was a total fire ban.
Victoria state has also been experiencing extreme conditions with four homes destroyed and six people people treated for minor burns or smoke inhalation.
Authorities said the fire was now under control.
"We have had very mild, cool conditions overnight which is a great help to the fire suppression effort," Country Fire Authority operations officer Ian Morley told reporters, with light rain in places.
Police in the southern island of Tasmania continued searching burned out properties.
"We know there have been no significant injuries, which is amazing, and we are encouraged that we haven't found any human remains at this stage," Tasmanian acting police commissioner Scott Tilyard told Sky News.
Much of southern Australia is enduring a summer heatwave, and in central Australia the popular tourist resort of Kings Canyon south of Alice Springs was damaged after a blaze spread from the Watarrka National Park.
ABC said 120 tourists were evacuated from the resort with the flames blackening many buildings, although the infrastructure remains intact.
With a report from Associated Press
34,008 daily records in U.S.
The numbers are in: 2012, the year of a surreal March heat wave, a severe drought in the corn belt and a massive storm that caused broad devastation in the mid-Atlantic states, turns out to have been the hottest year recorded in the contiguous United States.
How hot was it? The temperature differences between years are usually measured in fractions of a degree, but last year blew away the previous record, set in 1998, by a full degree Fahrenheit.
If that does not sound sufficiently impressive, consider that 34,008 daily high records were set at U.S. weather stations, compared with only 6,664 record lows, according to a count maintained by Weather Channel meteorologist Guy Walton, using federal temperature records.
That ratio, which was roughly in balance as recently as the 1970s, has been out of whack for decades as the country has warmed, but never by as much as it was last year.
"The heat was remarkable," said Jake Crouch, a scientist with the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., which released the official climate compilation Tuesday. "It was prolonged. That we beat the record by one degree is quite a big deal."
Scientists said that natural variability almost certainly played a role in last year's extreme heat and drought. But many of them expressed doubt that such a striking record would have been set without the backdrop of global warming caused by the human release of greenhouse gases. And they warned that 2012 was likely a foretaste of things to come, as continuing warming makes heat extremes more likely.
Even so, the last year's U.S. record is not expected to translate into a global temperature record when figures are released in coming weeks. The year featured a La Nina weather pattern, which tends to cool the global climate overall, and scientists expect it to be the world's eighth– or ninth-warmest year on record.
Assuming that prediction holds up, it will mean that the 10 warmest years on record all fell within the past 15 years, a measure of how much the planet has warmed. Nobody who is 28 has lived through a month of global temperatures that fell below the 20th-century average, because the last such month was February, 1985.
The New York Times