Updated: 01/17/2014 18:05 | By Agence France-Presse

Australian fires turn deadly as heatwave scorches

Skies over southeastern Australia darkened with huge plumes of smoke and lightning storms Friday after an epic heatwave, with raging wildfires claiming one life and residents warned to "leave and live".

Australian fires turn deadly as heatwave scorches

Photo released by the Victoria Country Fire Authority (CFA) on January 17, 2014 shows a prop plane dropping fire retardant material over bushfires in the Grampians in the Australian state of Victoria

A cool change began sweeping the states of South Australia and Victoria as evening fell, bringing much-needed relief to millions of residents who have sweltered through up to five days of scorching temperatures in excess of 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).

The baking heat has triggered thousands of wildfires since shifting Monday from the west coast, where it triggered an inferno that razed 56 homes and claimed one life.

Authorities were braced for horrific conditions as the cooling southerly change brought wind gusts of up to 120 kilometres (75 miles) per hour, fanning scores of fires across the two states and hampering aerial firebombing operations.

A towering firestorm sent more than 100 people fleeing their homes in the Grampians National Park west of Melbourne, killing a woman at Roses Gap and prompting authorities to warn of further casualties.

"These fires will be very intense and erratic this afternoon," Victoria state's fire commissioner Craig Lapsley told reporters. 

"There is a fair chance of losing property and even, if people are caught in the wrong space, life could be lost."

In the Grampians, people started evacuating the holiday town of Halls Gap on Thursday evening after seeing a "big red glow on top of the mountain," said Rohan McDonald, owner of the Halls Gap Lakeside Tourist Park.

"We are covered in smoke, there is a massive plume that looks like an atomic bomb has gone off over the top of the mountain," he said.

Lapsley said the out of control blaze, which has already ripped through more than 21,500 hectares and was just two kilometres from Halls Gap late Friday, was running so hot it was "creating its own weather".

The convection column -- a plume of hot gases, smoke, ash and other debris created by the fire -- was causing lightning strikes which were starting other blazes, he added. 

The smoke was so thick witnesses said it was like fog.

Lapsley said the four-day heatwave in Melbourne had brought "the same if not worse conditions" than those that had preceded the so-called Black Saturday wildfires in 2009 which had claimed 173 lives.

"Today is one of those days that certainly will be marked in the history of Victoria," Lapsley told reporters.

"We're only at the start of what is a significant fire period." 

There were some 57 fires raging across Victoria late Friday, seven of which were declared emergencies, and state Emergency Minister Kim Wells urged people to heed evacuation warnings.

"If the fire danger rating is severe, extreme or code red you are risking your life and that of your families if you choose to stay behind. The message is very clear -- leave and live," he said.

In neighbouring South Australia, which is in the fifth day of an extreme heatwave, two homes were razed in the Barossa winemaking region and there were three fire emergencies declared across the state, with properties under threat.

The Country Fire Service (CFS) was expecting lightning strikes as the cool change came through, further complicating firefighting efforts.

"We're expecting a number of new starts as a result of that lightning," said CFS chief Greg Nettleton.

The heatwave continued to take its toll on residents, with more than 400 heat exposure cases reported in Victoria since Tuesday and 51 heart attacks -- a significant increase on normal figures.

"For an hour there this morning we were doing one cardiac arrest every six minutes and we expect that this will continue until this weather cools down," said Ambulance Victoria operations manager Paul Holman.   

Melbourne peaked at 43.9 Celsius at 4:00 pm (0500 GMT) and had shed 13 degrees two hours later, while the South Australian capital Adelaide hit 42.7C just before 2:30 pm and was slowly cooling off.

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