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Australia bushfires rage out of control

SYDNEY--Bushfires raged out of control across Australia's most populous state Tuesday, fanned by intense heat and high winds in “catastrophic” conditions that targeted homes and triggered evacuations.

More than 140 fires were burning across New South Wales state late in the day, around 40 of them uncontained, state Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters in Sydney.

“You don't get conditions worse than this, we are at the catastrophic level,” he said.

Introduced after the 2009 Black Saturday firestorm in Victoria state, which claimed 173 lives, a “catastrophic” rating means fires will be uncontrollable, unpredictable and fast-moving, with evacuation the only safe option.

New South Wales faced one of the highest-risk fire days in its history, with blustery winds and temperatures reaching 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) in parts of the state, although the heat dropped as night fell.

So far there were reports of just one home being destroyed in the state, at Jugiong near the Australian Capital Territory border. Another two homes were razed in central Victoria state, local media said.

Fitzsimmons said fire crews faced a long night.

“We've still got many hours of very difficult conditions being faced for NSW. That's tonight alone, let alone looking into tomorrow,” he told ABC television.

While no deaths had been reported, officials remained on alert, with particular concerns about the regions of Shoalhaven, Illawarra and Southern Ranges south of Sydney, all popular summer holiday locations.

Shoalhaven mayor Joanna Gash said the area was a “tinderbox.”

“Things are not looking real good,” she told Sky News.

Also in southern New South Wales, authorities were battling an out-of-control grass fire encroaching on properties in Brogo, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of the national capital Canberra.

“We just looked at each other and said 'We're leaving,'” Brogo resident Hallie Fernandez-Markov told AFP from the town of Cobargo, where she was staying with friends after fleeing her guest house.

The popular tourist resort of Kings Canyon south of Alice Springs was in danger after a blaze spread from the Watarrka National Park, with visitors evacuated by road shortly before the fire hit.

Much of southern Australia is enduring a summer heat wave and a total fire ban was in place throughout New South Wales, with temperatures topping 42 degrees in Sydney and hitting 45 in the state's west.

Temperatures soared so high, and are expected to continue climbing in the days ahead, that the Bureau of Meteorology was forced to add new colors — deep purple and pink — to its charts for forecasts above the previous limit of 50 degrees.

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This undated handout picture provided by the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSW Rural Fire Service) on Tuesday, Jan. 8 shows smoke billowing as a bushfire burns near Green Point in New South Wales. (AFP)

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