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Australia faces 'catastrophic' days as wildfires rage in 5 of country's 6 states

Rob Blakers / EPA

Michelle Ardle was among the tourists evacuated Sunday after being trapped by forest fires in south-east Tasmania for two nights.

CANBERRA, Australia — Australia was bracing on Monday for days of "catastrophic" fire and heat-wave conditions, with fires already burning in five states.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard toured fire-ravaged Tasmanian townships and promised emergency aid for survivors, who told of a "fireball" that engulfed communities across the thinly populated state on Friday and Saturday.

"The trees just exploded," local man Ashley Zanol told Australian radio, recounting a wall of flames that surrounded his truck as he carted water to assist fire crews in the hard-hit township of Murdunna, which was largely leveled by the inferno.

Ferocious wildfires have forced hundreds of people to flee their homes in Australia's island state of Tasmania. Channel 4's Krishnan Guru-Murthy reports.

Tasmanian police said around 100 people feared missing in bushfires had been accounted for and there had so far been no deaths as authorities combed through still-smouldering ruins of homes and vehicles, while evacuating local people and tourists.

Bushfires were ablaze in five of Australia's six states, with 90 fires in the most populous state New South Wales, and in mountain forests around the national capital Canberra.

On Tuesday morning, authorities were warning people living in Kybeyan valley to leave the area, where they said at least 20 homes were in the path of a blaze.

Record heat wave
Severe fire conditions were forecast for Tuesday, replicating those of 2009, when "Black Saturday" wildfires in Victoria state killed 173 people and caused $4.4 billion worth of damage.

A record heat wave, which began in Western Australia on Dec. 27 and lasted eight days, was the fiercest in more than 80 years in that state.  It has spread east across the nation, making it the widest-ranging heat wave in more than a decade, according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

Chris Kidd / Pool via EPA

Homes damaged by fire are seen from a helicopter between Dunalley and Boomer Bay, Tasmania, Australia, on Jan. 5. Hundreds of local residents and tourists took to the sea in boats to escape forest fires that burned to the waterline in Australia's island state of Tasmania.

New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell said record-low rains have produced large fuel loads that increase the risk of fire, combined with record temperatures and high winds, Australia's 7 News reported.

"Tomorrow [Tuesday] is not going to be just another ordinary day," he said. "Tomorrow will be perhaps the worst fire danger day this state has ever faced."

More coverage from 7 News

Tuesday would bring the highest "catastrophic" bushfire temperature conditions, fire officials said, warning that many blazes would likely be too fierce for fire crews to easily extinguish.

"Any fire that burns under the predicted conditions — 40-degree (Celsius) temperatures (104 degrees F), below 10 percent humidity, winds gusting over 70 kilometers an hour (43 mph) — those conditions are by any measure horrendous," New South Wales Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers said.

PhotoBlog: Wildfires in Tasmania destroy more than 100 homes

In the Australian capital, Canberra, hit by a firestorm in 2003 that destroyed hundreds of homes, authorities said they were expecting the worst conditions in the decade since, with a fifth day of searing temperatures and strong winds.

"With those winds it boosts up the fire danger significantly," the city's deputy fire chief Michael Joyce told local reporters.

Blazes sparked by weekend lightning storms were already burning in forests surrounding the sprawling lake-and-bushland city, as they did 10 years earlier.

Reuters contributed to this report. 7 News is NBC's Australian partner.

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