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Australia braces for lethal heatwave

SOUTHEAST Australia is preparing for a major heatwave that could cause the worst bushfires for decades, and nursing homes have been warned to prepare for the searing heat after several deaths during a heatwave last week.

The temperature in the outback town of Ivanhoe in New South Wales state is forecast to reach 47 degrees Celsius today and the coastal cities of Sydney and Melbourne will bake under 40-plus Celsius.

Tens of thousands of firefighters are on standby to cope with bushfire outbreaks, with authorities in Victoria state warning today's conditions could be worse than those that led to the deadly "Ash Wednesday" fires of 1983, which killed 75.

"It's just going to be probably ... the worst day ever in the history of the state in terms of temperatures and winds," Victoria state premier John Brumby told reporters yesterday.

"The state is just tinder dry, so people need to exercise real common sense tomorrow, if you don't need to go out don't go out, it's a seriously bad day," he said.

The heatwave will not affect commodity crops such as wheat and sugar, which are grown predominately in western and northern Australia.

Authorities fear the heatwave, which last week caused major blackouts and left thousands of residents without air conditioning, could again be fatal to the elderly.

There were 22 "sudden deaths" in Adelaide at the height of the last heatwave and several in Melbourne.

"This is about protecting our nation's frail and aged," said Minister for Ageing Justine Elliot, in warning nursing homes to prepare for the heatwave. Nursing homes in southeast Australia care for some 170,000 residents.

"Aged care providers have a legal obligation to ensure that they are providing proper care for residents. It is important in heatwave conditions that they recognize residents may not be able to communicate their discomfort," Elliot said in a statement.

South Australia's main morgue was now almost full with 71 bodies, a temporary morgue has been hired, and elective surgery delayed as hospitals try to cope with more than 600 heat-related cases, said local media.

It's a rather different story in north of the country, which has experienced severe flooding.

Water levels began to drop slightly yesterday, but a forecast of more heavy rain will stymie the recovery and cleanup effort. Queensland state premier Anna Bligh visited the hardest-hit area and pledged A$500,000 (US$325,140) to help northern towns recover, asking Australians to add their own contributions.

"The place is totally waterlogged, and we've got more very heavy rain appearing as I speak," Bligh told Australian Broadcasting Corporation after flying over the town of Ingham in a helicopter.

The Herbert River in Ingham dropped by 1 meter in the last 24 hours but could return to its Monday peak of 12.2 meters if the low pressure storm system off the coast dumps the expected 30 centimeters of rain on the town this weekend.

More than 60 percent of Queensland is already under water, with flooding over 1 million square kilometers, or twice the area of Spain.


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