* Thousands of firefighters battle hundreds of blazes
* Residents evacuate homes in face of out-of-control fires
* Record temperatures bake Sydney
* Cooler change hoped to end incendiary conditions
(Updates with latest on fires, fresh quotes)
By Rob Taylor
CANBERRA, Jan 8 (Reuters) - Australian fire crews battled
hundreds of wildfires, a searing heatwave and powerful, hot
outback winds on Tuesday, but were hopeful they had dodged a
potentially catastrophic fire day without loss of life or major
Hundreds of people were forced to evacuate homes as fires
raged in southeast Australia, while some had no choice but to
seek shelter in their homes as fires approached. Temperatures
soared to more than 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit).
Fire fighters hope cooler weather sweeping up the Australian
east coast late on Tuesday, which saw temperatures fall 20
degrees Celsius in a matter of hours in some coastal towns,
would ease the incendiary conditions.
"It's very much a moveable feast with many fires still being
identified," said New South Wales (NSW) state fire commissioner
Shane Fitzsimmons, warning a respite would not come for some
hours and would last only days before searing heat driven by
outback winds returned.
The severe fire conditions replicated those of 2009, when
"Black Saturday" wildfires in Victoria state killed 173 people
and caused $4.4 billion worth of damage.
After a week-long heatwave bushfires are ablaze in five of
Australia's six states, with more than 137 fires in the most
populous state NSW, and in forests around the capital Canberra.
Around 100 houses, the majority on the island state of
Tasmania, have been destroyed by bushfires in recent days, and
many people are still missing in fire-ravaged areas.
More than 40 fires raged out of control on Tuesday as
thousands of firefighters and more than 60 water-bombing
aircraft battled the blazes, some suspected of having been lit
Fire officials declared five areas of southern NSW as
catastrophic, meaning if fires ignited they could not be
controlled and advised people to evacuate.
"We grabbed the photo albums, suitcases, clothes and
jewellery and ended up getting out while we could," said Hallie
Fernandez who runs a bed and breakfast motel at Brogo in NSW,
where an out-of-control bushfire was burning.
In Australia's biggest city Sydney, where the temperature
hit 41.8 degrees Celsius, thousands flocked to the city's iconic
beaches, while zookeepers hosed down animals to help them cope
with temperatures that tested national records.
The blistering heat also caused a blaze at a nuclear
research facility in southern Sydney after cabling overheated in
a nearby electricity substation, while thousands of homes in the
city's north experienced power outages due to soaring demand.
In the outback city of Broken Hill, the mercury hit 45.1
Celsius (113 Fahrenheit), while the country's biggest highway
between Sydney and Melbourne was cut by fires that surrounded
people in the township of Tarcutta.
"The heat has been so intense that tar on the road has been
melting and sticking to my shoes," retired Australian journalist
Malcolm Brown said from central NSW.
The record heatwave forced the Australian Bureau of
Meteorology to extend its extreme temperature limit, adding new
pink and purple colours to forecast maps to allow for
temperatures of above 54 degrees Celsius (129 Fahrenheit).
The bureau is forecasting 54 degrees Celsius in central
Australia next Monday.
The heatwave, which began in Western Australia on Dec. 27
and lasted eight days, was the fiercest in more than 80 years in
that state and has spread east across the nation, making it the
widest-ranging heatwave in more than a decade.
Strong wind gusts had created a "dome of heat" covering much
of the island continent, said climate experts.
Australia, the world's driest inhabited continent, is
particularly vulnerable to bushfires, fuelled each summer by
extreme heat and by what scientists say is creeping climate
shift blamed for hotter average temperatures globally.
Authorities warned earlier in the Australian summer that
much of the country faced extreme fire conditions this season,
after several years of cooler conditions that had aided forest
growth, but also created tinder dry fire fuel conditions.
(Editing by Michael Perry)