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Australia warns of fire danger as heat wave hits

SYDNEY -- Australian authorities warned Tuesday of some of the worst fire danger since a 2009 inferno which killed 173 people, with most of the continent's southeast sweltering through a major heat wave.

Victoria state, where the so-called Black Saturday firestorm flattened entire villages in 2009 and destroyed more than 2,000 homes, was again bracing for extreme fire weather.

“These next four days promise to be amongst the most significant that we have faced in Victoria since Black Saturday,” said acting state premier Peter Ryan.

Tens of thousands of firefighters were on standby, and 1,290 brigades were in a “state of high preparedness,” he added, with the peak danger day expected on Friday when very strong winds are forecast.

Two separate grass-fires tested crews early at Little River, west of Melbourne, and Kangaroo Ground to the east.

The flames raced out of control and triggered brief emergency alerts before water-bombing aircraft and engine teams managed to bring them under control.

There were also blazes alight in neighboring South Australia state.

Victoria and South Australia are preparing this week for what forecasters are describing as “severe to extreme heat wave conditions,” with successive days of temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius expected.

A similar heat wave struck before the 2009 fires, Australia's worst natural disaster of the modern era in terms of casualties. An estimated 374 people died during the preceding heat wave, with another 173 fatalities in the firestorm itself.

If the forecasts come to pass, Melbourne will endure its longest stretch of hot weather in 100 years.

Road tar was melting in southern Tasmania, with temperatures in the island state some 18 degrees above the January average, breaking several records.

On Tuesday, players at the Australian Open were sweltering.

A ball boy collapsed and water bottles melted on court as the mercury soared above 40 degrees Celsius.

Experts said the outlook had echoes of 2009.

“The forecast weather patterns are quite reminiscent of conditions before Black Saturday, with severe and expansive high temperatures across the southern part of the continent and the presence of low pressure cells on either side of the country in the tropics,” said bushfire specialist Jason Sharples from the University of New South Wales in Canberra.

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