Sunday 26 January 2020

'You cope, but it's not fun' - residents of Australian outback town battle major heatwave set to smash records

Mercury rising: A firefighter douses a bush fire in Dargan. Photo: AFP via Getty
Mercury rising: A firefighter douses a bush fire in Dargan. Photo: AFP via Getty

Jonathan Barrett

An outback town near Australia's red-hot centre barely paused yesterday for a heatwave that is gripping the country, fuelling fires and prompting widespread health warnings.

Oodnadatta, a south Australian town of about 200 people on an old Aboriginal trading route, was forecast to record peak temperatures of 47C yesterday, according to the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM), making it one of the hottest places on Earth.

"It's just another very hot day," said resident Hayley Nunn, who is the manager of the town's distinct pink roadhouse where tourists stop on their way to and from Australia's Simpson Desert.

"People say to me they love summer. If you love summer, come out and experience this, because you will not love it," Ms Nunn said in a phone interview.

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The unrelenting heat in Oodnadatta, forecast to repeat every day for at least the next week, is expected to fall just shy of the 50.7C temperature recorded there in 1960, a long-standing national record.

But other heat records are tumbling in the first month of the Southern Hemisphere summer.

A dog cools off under a shower at St Kilda beach in Melbourne. Photo: Reuters
A dog cools off under a shower at St Kilda beach in Melbourne. Photo: Reuters

Australia's warmest day on record occurred in January 2013, when the average maximum temperature across the country was 40C, according to BOM data.

That mark was exceeded yesterday and is expected to do so again today and tomorrow.

The hot weather is stretching across the continent and fuelling fires that have been ravaging Australia's east since late spring.

Fire authorities in the state of New South Wales said yesterday there were 99 fires, half of which were not contained. Fires have killed six people, destroyed more than 680 homes and burned nearly three million acres of bushland.

Australia is being hit with two separate climate-driving events off its west and southern coasts that are reducing rainfall and increasing temperatures.

"They have combined together to create this situation of a particularly nasty heatwave event," said BOM meteorologist Sarah Scully.

The extreme conditions have been made worse by a warming climate, which is triggering large-scale protests in a nation that is committed to exploiting its vast coal reserves.

The combination of thick smoke settling over populated areas and intense heat has triggered numerous health warnings across the country, especially for the young, the old and those with respiratory conditions.

In Oodnadatta, where the temperature is only expected to drop to around 30C overnight, locals are warning travellers to take plenty of water on their car trips in case they break down on the long stretches of isolated roads.

"Between most towns, it's 200 kilometres," said Ms Nunn.

Ms Nunn said Oodnadatta falls into a rhythm in the summer, where people do jobs early in the morning and late in the afternoon, while sheltering from the heat in the middle of the day.

"I grew up here, I'm used to the heat," she said. "You cope, but it's not fun."

Irish Independent

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