By Rob Taylor
An Australian state introduced on Monday a "mega-fire" alert level that will warn people to flee approaching wildfires and leave homes undefended as unseasonal winter bushfires point to a searing summer ahead.
Fearing a repeat of "Black Saturday" infernos in February which killed 173 people and destroyed thousands of homes, authorities in Victoria state said they would introduce a new system of alerts warning of huge uncontrollable blazes.
"Black Saturday re-wrote the book on fire fighting and planning, and it is crucial that we learn the lessons from the worst natural disaster in our nation's history," Victoria state Premier John Brumby told reporters.
Mega-fires form when several fires join up in a huge front, creating their own weather systems with hurricane strength winds driving storms of burning embers and walls of flame.
Similar firestorms raged in Greece this month, forcing thousands of Athens residents to evacuate, while wildfires in California are threatening 10,000 homes close to Los Angeles.
Huge fires blackened large parts of Portugal, Spain and France in 2003, and also struck Canada and the United States as well as Australia, which is the world's most fire-prone country.
The mega-fire alert was recommended in the wake of Victoria's February fires, with a judicial inquiry finding victims had been confused by "stay-or-go" advice which gave them the option of trying to defend homes as intense firestorms approached.
Rare winter bushfires were burning uncontrolled close to homes in 60 areas of Australia's east coast on Monday, with authorities warning of a grim summer season ahead because of hot, dry weather and parched forests.
"People at the Fire Control Center have told me that they have not seen this type of fire behavior at this time of year before," New South Wales state Minister for Emergency Services Steve Whan said.
Forecasters see an El Nino weather effect developing in the Pacific close to Australia, bringing higher temperatures and worsening drought conditions.
"It is quite an interesting end to winter. With fire behavior like this in August, there might be extreme fires in summer," Rural Fire Service Assistant Commissioner Rob Rogers told the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.