Wildfires rage in Australia amid searing heat

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Firefighters battled scores of wildfires raging across south-east Australia today as authorities evacuated national parks and warned that blistering temperatures and high winds had led to “catastrophic” conditions in some areas.

No deaths had been reported, although officials in Tasmania were still trying to find around 100 residents who have been missing since a blaze tore through the small town of Dunalley, east of the state capital of Hobart, last week, destroying around 90 homes.

Today, police said no bodies were found during preliminary checks of the ruined houses.

"We are shaping up for one of the worst fire danger days on record," New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

"You don't get conditions worse than this. We are at the catastrophic level and clearly in those areas leaving early is your safest option."

Catastrophic threat level is the most severe rating applicable.

Wildfires have razed 50,000 acres (20,000 hectares) of forests and farmland across southern Tasmania since Friday. In New South Wales, the country's most populous state, the fires had burned through more than 64,000 (26,000 hectares) of land.

More than 130 fires were blazing across New South Wales, though only a few dozen houses were under threat by early evening. One fire was threatening about 30 homes near the small town of Cooma, south of the capital of Canberra. Cooma-Monaro shire mayor Dean Lynch told Australia's Sky News that some residents had been evacuated to the nearby town of Nimmitabel.

Strong winds were hampering efforts to bring the fires under control. Wind gusts more than 62mph (100kph) were recorded in some parts of the state.

All state forests and national parks were closed as a precaution and total fire bans were in place with temperatures in excess of 45C (113F) in some areas.

One volunteer firefighter suffered severe burns to his hands and face while tackling a grass blaze near Gundaroo village, about 138 miles (220km) south-west of Sydney, yesterday. He was flown to a hospital in Sydney for treatment.

Fire chief Mr Fitzsimmons said the firefighter's condition had improved, and he was expected to be released from hospital in the next few days.

Wildfires are common during the Australian summer. In February 2009, hundreds of fires across Victoria state killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes.

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