Saturday, January 31, 2009

Record-Breaking Heat Scorches Southern Australia

Australia – Wildfires destroyed more than 20 homes while hundreds of thousands of others lost power as a record-breaking heat wave that began claiming lives maintained its oppressive grip on southern Australia on Saturday.

About six people died from heat stress in Melbourne, Australia's second largest city, over three days before the temperature mellowed to 31 degrees Celsius (88 Fahrenheit) on Saturday, Victoria state Police deputy commissioner Kieran Walshe said.

Melbourne on Friday recorded its third consecutive day of temperatures above 109 degrees Fahrenheit (43 Celsius) for the first time since record-keeping began in 1855.

South Australia state authorities said Saturday that the heat had probably caused some of the recent 22 sudden deaths there. It was not yet clear how many, state Health Minister John Hill said.

Heavy air conditioner use caused a breakdown in Melbourne's electricity grid Friday night, blacking out 500,000 homes and businesses while pulling the plug on the city's electric train network.

"These events are unprecedented," Victoria state Energy and Resources Minister Peter Batchelor said Saturday. "In some respects, they are not unlike a natural disaster, impacting on a community like a flood or tornado."

Both Melbourne, capital of Victoria, and South Australia capital Adelaide have experienced localized blackouts in recent days as energy providers share electricity to cope with the unprecedented demand.

Ambulance services in both cities have reported increases in emergency calls because of the heat.

In Victoria, at least 23 houses were destroyed Friday night and Saturday by wildfires that burned 16,000 acres (6,300 hectares) of forest and farm land, Country Fire Service spokesman Paul Swan said.

About 400 firefighters and 12 water-bombing aircraft continued to battle the blaze, he said.

Adelaide is expected to match its longest heat wave in a century on Monday, with six consecutive days exceeding 104 F (40 C). The heat there buckled train and tram lines.

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