'Code Red' as heat intensifies
Sydney - Australian officials issued their first ever "catastrophic" wildfire evacuation warning on Tuesday, as a parching heatwave intensified over the country's south.
Created in the wake of February's devastating Black Saturday firestorm, which killed 173 people, the new warning urges residents to flee due to conditions being at their most extreme.
It replaced a "stay or go" policy allowing homeowners to remain and fight extremely risky blazes, which came under heavy criticism after the February disaster.
Catastrophic or Code Red conditions were declared for the first time in South Australia state on Tuesday, where the temperature was forecast to top 40 degrees Celsius following an earlier record-breaking heatwave.
"In the next couple of days we are going to see high temperatures, very low humidity and very strong winds," said fire service chief Euan Ferguson.
"This is the first real test for the summer."
Code Red conditions are considered on a par with those experienced ahead of the Black Saturday fires, which in Victoria state razed entire towns and more than 2 000 homes, Australia's worst natural disaster of modern times.
Residents cannot be forcibly evacuated but are strongly advised to leave their property on a Code Red day, which signifies a high risk of death or injury and destruction.
"To ensure your survival you should leave tonight or early tomorrow morning, well before a fire starts," the fire service said in its official warning.
South Australia sweltered through a record-breaking eight days of extreme temperatures last week, leaving bushland and pastoral areas tinder-dry and vulnerable to fast-moving and uncontrollable flames.
It was the state's first-ever November heatwave, and Ferguson said he had never seen so much combustible material so early in the southern hemisphere summer.