Emergency services have gone to high alert in southeast Australia as the region’s worst heatwave in a century sent temperatures soaring and residents scurrying for cover.
Authorities warned elderly, sick and infant residents of the states of Victoria and South Australia to stay home and keep cool as the mercury was tipped to hit 44 degrees Celsius (112 Fahrenheit), raising the spectre of heatstroke and wildfires.
The heatwave in Victoria, which was expected to last several days and be the region’s worst since 1908, raised fears of heat-related deaths and wildfires following years of drought, authorities said.
Soaring temperatures claimed two victims in Melbourne on Wednesday — a 75-year-old man who collapsed while walking just 500 metres to his car and a 24-year-old who was waiting for a tram.
“Over the next few days, it’s important to avoid the heat where possible, and stay inside,” said Ambulance Victoria Operations Manager Paul Holman.
“It is also important to drink plenty of water,” he said, urging people to check on ill or frail neighbours.
Organisers of the Australian Open tennis Grand Slam in Melbourne were forced to interrupt the tournament for the first time as temperatures rocketed to a sizzling 41 degrees.
Serena Williams’ women’s singles quarter-final with Svetlana Kuznetsova was halted for about 45 minutes as organisers enacted their “extreme heat policy” and closed the roof on the Rod Laver Arena.
In South Australia, officials of Thoroughbred Racing Australia cancelled a horse race meeting in the town of Gawler because of extreme weather conditions.
“We’ve made this decision in the best interests of the horses, jockeys and all other participants in view of the 42 degree temperatures that have been forecast,” said the association’s Sean Clarkson.
Authorities in South Australia imposed a total fire ban across much of Victoria and all of South Australia to prevent the outbreak of blazes fuelled by hot winds and dead and dry vegetation left by years of drought.
“We are on high alert today. We have our state co-ordination centre ready to go in case anything does happen,” said Melissa Veal of the South Australia Country Fire Service.
Emergency services chiefs in Victoria urged residents to prepare bushfire plans in case they need to flee and put up to 100,000 volunteers and staff firefighters on standby.