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Strong winds fan bushfires as Australia battles spring heatwave

Australian firefighters prepare for "most significant" fire risk since Black Summer

By Renju Jose

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Strong winds and a rare, intense heatwave in early spring fanned dozens of bushfires across Australia's southeast, prompting extreme fire danger warnings on Wednesday for the greater Sydney region, home to more than 5 million people.

More than 600 firefighters and emergency personnel were battling to control 68 fires burning across New South Wales (NSW) state as of Wednesday morning, with 17 not yet contained, NSW Rural Fire Services said in its latest update.

"With hot, dry and windy conditions forecast throughout the day, the Greater Sydney Region ... will experience extreme fire danger, while several other areas will experience high fire danger," fire services said.

Parts of Australia are sweltering in an unusual five-day burst of spring heat, forecast to last until Wednesday, pushing temperatures well above the September average.

Total fire bans are in place for large swathes of New South Wales, with Sydney on Wednesday set to post its fifth consecutive daytime maximum temperature of more than 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) in September, a record. But a cold front from Thursday will push temperatures down to the low 20s.

Residents of a popular holiday town in the island state Tasmania were told on late Tuesday to move to a safer location due to an uncontrolled bushfire fuelled by strong wind gusts. There have been no reports of property damage or injuries though more than 100 people had to sleep in their cars, media reported.

After three years of heavy rains and frequent flooding, Australia is bracing for a warm and dry southern hemisphere spring and summer in 2023. On Tuesday, Australia's Bureau of Meteorology declared an El Nino weather pattern, typically associated with wildfires and droughts, was underway.

Fire crews have rushed to conduct hazard-reduction burns in Sydney's west to prepare for the looming bushfire season, which authorities have said could be the worst since the 2019-2020 "Black Summer" fires that destroyed an area the size of Turkey and killed 33 people.

(Reporting by Renju Jose in Sydney; Editing by Sonali Paul)