Massive emergency plans have swung into action across New South Wales as the state faces one of its most dangerous days in history, with terrifying warnings that dawn would bring catastrophe.
People living in the most dangerous areas have been urged to flee possible firestorms likely to consume even buildings designed to withstand large fires, and authorities were preparing the evacuation of the sick and elderly.
National parks and camping grounds have been closed, and holidaymakers have been told to pack up and head for safety by 8am this morning, at the latest.
"Tomorrow is not going to be just another ordinary day," State Premier Barry O'Farrell said.
"Tomorrow will be perhaps the worst fire-danger day this state has ever faced."
Temperatures across much of the state will soar into the mid-40s. Sydney is facing a maximum 43C, only the third time in the history of record keeping that the mercury has risen so high in Australia's largest city.
Fire crews have already battled 4500 outbreaks in NSW so far this summer, and were yesterday fighting to contain 90 fires - 20 of them out of control - before today's explosive conditions.
An emergency was declared near Wagga Wagga as a grass fire headed toward the town of Oura, about 15km northeast of the Riverina city. It was later downgraded.
The extremely hot air pumping out from the interior will also hit other states. In Victoria, an emergency was issued last night for the farming community of Drik Drik after a wind change put the massive Kentbruck fire on a path towards the town. In Tasmania, where more than 100 homes and businesses were incinerated at the weekend a fire at Montumana was last night listed as an emergency. Montumana, Mawbanna and Rocky Cape township were at risk from a fire.
Police and troops were yesterday searching house-to-house through Tasmania's devastated communities in a grim hunt for bodies, although most of those originally reported missing have been found. No deaths have been reported. Thousands of people trapped on the island's Tasman Peninsula by the Forcett firestorm that caused most of the losses have been evacuated by a flotilla of boats to Hobart.
The federal Government has added relief payments to state assistance for fire victims. The Queen has sent support in a message passed through state governor Peter Underwood.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard toured the disaster area yesterday and promised support in rebuilding lives and communities.
"I've come to Tasmania today for one purpose, and that's to say to the people of Tasmania that the nation is standing with them at this very, very difficult time," she said.
Despite brief respite yesterday across much of the eastern states, there is no early hope of the extended heatwave ending. A southerly change is expected to cool the southeast late tonight, but high temperatures will return for the weekend.
The change will also hamper firefighters, swinging firefronts and containment lines into dangerously unpredictable directions. The change will also push extreme temperatures into northern NSW and Queensland.
Tasmanian fire chief Mike Brown said that with no rain in sight conditions would worsen as major fires continued: "There's a huge line of fire that's moving through the mountain regions on the Tasman Peninsula at the moment."
Tomorrow the biggest danger lies in NSW, where a catastrophic fire risk has been declared in an arc south of Sydney through the coastal Illawarra and Shoalhaven regions, and the Southern Ranges area that embraces the large inland city of Goulburn. Extreme and severe fire danger covers most the rest of NSW and the threat remains deadly outside the worst zones. "No one will be immune," NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.
The anti-clockwise winds of a high-pressure system off the coast will produce strong, hot northerly winds gusting up to 80km/h, roaring across dehydrated land covered with the largest fuel loads the state has seen in at least three decades.
Yesterday's hottest towns
47C Roxby Downs SA
46C Coober Pedy SA, Warburton WA, Leonora WA.
45C Leigh Creek SA, Ivanhoe NSW.
44C Tibooburra NSW.
The hot zones
New South Wales
About 90 bushfires burning across the state. Twelve new fires had broken out on Sunday night in the state's west near Griffith, Broken Hill and Bourke as a result of lightning strikes. New fires were also burning around the Griffith, Wagga Wagga and the Cooma area. About 550 firefighters were out battling blazes.
Firefighters were struggling to contain the Kentbruck bushfire in southwestern Victoria. The fire was burning between Portland and the Glenelg National Park. The community of Drik Drik was in danger.
Crews were battling a bushfire in South Australia's mid-north near Hoyleton. Police urged people to take steps to keep cool and remain on high alert for bushfires. The mercury across the state was expected to stay high although a cooler day has now been forecast for tomorrow. The Adelaide Zoo was taking special steps to keep the animals cool.
A total fire ban in place. Two of three bushfires were burning. Firefighters extinguished a blaze in the Namadgi National Park. A firefighter was severely burnt and transferred to Sydney.
Tasmania's bushfire emergency shifted to the state's northwest, with some residents warned it may be too late to leave their homes. An emergency warning was issued for a fire burning near Mawbanna. Four watch and act warnings remain in place. The Insurance Council of Australia says at least A$26 million in damage has been done so far.
-AAPBy Greg Ansley Email Greg