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heatwave elevates beach, bushfires COVID-19 risks

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Bushfires, alcohol-related drownings and COVID-19 superspreading events are among the concerns flagged by emergency services as NSW and the ACT brace for a “significant” heatwave leading up to Australia Day.

Bureau of Meteorology experts are forecasting “severe to extreme” heatwave conditions with temperatures in both states set to soar into the high 30s and low 40s from Friday through to Tuesday.

On Sunday, the mercury is tipped to rise to 42C in western Sydney as a trough from inland Australia brings bone-dry heat until at least Monday.

Scorching temperatures will also be felt in the state’s southern half, from Broken Hill to Albury, and through Dubbo and Sydney from Friday.

On Australia Day, NSW is predicted to experience temperatures in the mid-30s and possibly showers in the afternoon.

“We are looking at severe to extreme heatwave conditions developing,” BOM senior meteorologist Gabrielle Woodhouse said on Thursday.

“Temperatures are going to be anywhere between eight to 16 degrees above average in places and that is going to guide some elevated fire dangers, on Sunday and Monday in particular.”

Rural Fire Service operations director Peter McKechnie urged those in rural areas to start planning for the peak of the heatwave on Sunday.

“Now is the time for people to be preparing,” Mr McKechnie said.

“These heatwave conditions, particularly for us in the southern part of the state, will have a real impact.

“Grass fuel loads, particularly west of the Great Dividing Range, are quite high.

“You’ve got some days ahead of it. Take your actions now, prepare your property. Know what you’ll do if fire threatens. Download the Fires Near Me app if you haven’t already and set your warning areas.”

Surf Life Saving NSW chief executive Steven Pearce raised concerns of beachgoers adding to the state’s grim average of one alcohol-related drowning each Australia Day.

“Heat, coupled with Australia Day (celebrations), means there is going to be a lot of drinking of alcohol,” Mr Pearce said.

“Over a five-year average, tragically, we see one person drown every Australia Day because of alcohol.

“It’s going to be extremely hot and people are going to be looking to hydrate. But the message is, don’t try to hydrate with a beer or chardy (chardonnay) and if you do, (remember that) drinking and swimming will not mix.”

Mr Pearce noted 20 people had drowned on the NSW coast since July last year, most recently a 50-year-old mother trying to save her swimming sons in a rip near Moruya.

Of the 49 people who drowned in NSW in 2020, none happened between red-and-yellow flags. Mr Pearce urged beachgoers to swim only at patrolled beaches.

NSW Health’s acting director of environmental health, Dr Adi Vyas, suggested people stay home and avoid shopping centres where possible.

“If you’re able to keep cool at home using fans, airconditioning and closed blinds, please do so and stay at home,” he said.

“That way, we won’t compromise physical distancing in public indoor venues, such as shopping centres, libraries and other public buildings where people may seek respite from the heat.

“If you do leave your home to attend other indoor spaces, please physically distance and wear a mask in places where you cannot maintain 1.5 metres distance from others.”

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