Australia bushfires destroy homes, kill cattle

High temperatures and strong winds have fuelled large grass and bushfires in Australia, officials said Monday, reducing dozens of houses to ash and killing cattle.

Sixty-nine homes were destroyed in the picturesque seaside village of Tathra on the south coast of New South Wales when a fire tore through the area on Sunday.

Some 40,000 hectares (100,000 acres) were also scorched in southwestern regions of neighbouring Victoria as dozens of blazes swept through over the weekend, wiping out beef and dairy cattle.

Despite the damage, authorities said there were no reports of serious injuries or deaths.

"It was an absolutely awful set of circumstances yesterday afternoon for the community of Tathra, dominated by this very hot, dry air and these very strong winds," NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told Sky News Australia Monday.

Tathra resident David Porter, who fled home with his family to the neighbouring town of Bega as the fire approached, described seeing thick smoke and flying embers.

"As the fire came close, you could actually hear the sound of the fire and see the enormity of it coming over the hill," Porter told AFP.

"It was just an overwhelming sight to see something so big and strong that was unstoppable moving towards you. You really realise as a human how insignificant you are when you see such a sight."

- Unseasonably warm -

The fires flared up as southeastern Australia was hit by a bout of unseasonably warm weather, with gusting winds fanning the large blazes.

Experts said the infernos showed the bushfire season -- which usually occurs in the summer months of December-February -- was lengthening as climate change disrupts weather patterns.

In Tathra, over 1,000 hectares were burnt and more than 60 firefighters were continuing to battle the flames Monday, supported by three water-bombing aircraft, NSW Rural Fire Service spokesman Greg Allan told AFP.

In Victoria, Premier Daniel Andrews said the "unprecedented" force of the fires had claimed at least 18 homes.

"The size of this fire, its absolute intensity, how fast running it was and of course at night, we are all very fortunate that we are not talking about serious injury or loss of life," he told reporters.

Firefighters were hopeful they could contain three remaining blazes in the region as the weather became milder, Andrews added. Cooler conditions and rain were also forecast for Tathra, Fitzsimmons said.

The devastating scenes came as the northern city of Darwin cleaned up after it was hit by Category two Cyclone Marcus, which brought down trees and power lines. No injuries or serious damage was reported.

The extreme weather ignited political debate about whether they had been fuelled by climate change.

Greens party leader Richard Di Natale told the upper house Senate that "we are seeing climate change in our everyday lives have an impact on the risk of bushfires to our communities".

David Bowman, an expert in environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania added that "this (Tathra) event shows destructive fires can occur 'outside' the summer bushfire season".

"Fire seasons are lengthening globally in response to climate change, similar seasonally 'anomalous' destructive fires are being reported elsewhere in the world, such as California."

But Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who visited Tathra residents at a Bega evacuation centre Monday, said the disasters should not be politicised.

"We have an environment which has extremes. Bushfires are part of Australia, as, indeed, are droughts and floods," he told reporters.


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