As hundreds of fires continue to wreak devastation across the country, a climate expert has warned "the worst may be yet to come", with a summer of cyclones, floods and soaring temperatures on the way.

Neville Nicholls, professor emeritus at Monash University's School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment, said peak time for heatwaves in southern Australia – where temperatures nudged 50C on Saturday – was still weeks away.

At least 25 people have lost their lives nationwide, with six people still unaccounted for in NSW and Victoria, as fires – some intense enough to generate their own thunderstorms – continue to burn in every state.

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Around 1500 homes have been destroyed and millions of hectares razed, sending ash and smoke 2000km across the Tasman and turning the skies of Auckland orange.

Milder temperatures brought hope firefighters slight respite from bush fires in New South Wales. Photo / AP
Milder temperatures brought hope firefighters slight respite from bush fires in New South Wales. Photo / AP

Earlier estimates of half a billion animal deaths in NSW alone have been revised by Sydney University ecologist Chris Dickson, who says the true figures are likely to be "much higher".

Now Prof Nicholls said Australia should prepare for more misery, with extreme weather systems such as "cyclones, floods and heatwaves" set to push our emergency services and resources to their limits.

"Public attention on the disastrous bushfire crisis in Australia will rightly continue for weeks to come," he wrote in The Conversation on January 5.

"But as we direct resources to coping and recovery, we should not forget other weather and climate challenges looming this summer.

"We are still a month away from the riskiest time for heatwaves in southern Australia. We've already had some severe heatwaves this summer. However, they usually peak in the middle and end of summer, so the worst may be yet to come.

"Lives have undoubtedly been saved this summer by improved forecasting of high temperatures and better dissemination of heatwave information by state and local governments. "But after an already devastating early summer of fires and heat, warning fatigue may set in among both warning providers and the public.

"We must ensure heatwave warnings continue to be disseminated to populations at risk and are acted on."


Prof Nicholls said many parts of the country could expect heavy rains and flooding – and not only in the northern states, where cyclone season was "just gearing up".

Australia experienced its driest year on record last year and heavy rain, while welcome, would present new perils.

"The flood risk is exacerbated by the bare soil and lack of vegetation caused by drought and by bushfires that destroy forest and grassland," he said.

"Australia's north may be particularly hard hit. The onset of the tropical wet season has been very much delayed as the Bureau (of Meteorology) predicted.

"Over the last three months, some parts of the Australian tropics had their lowest ever October-December rainfall. But there are some suggestions widespread rain may be on its way.

"Further south, drought-breaking rains can also be heavy and widespread, leading to increased flood risk. So even when the drought breaks and rains quell the fires, there will likely still be bouts of extreme weather and high demand for emergency services."

The climate expert's warning was bolstered overnight with the formation of Cyclone Blake off the coast of Western Australia.

Heavy rain and strong winds are set to batter the Kimberley coast late today before moving into the Pilbara tomorrow.

A firefighter battles flames near Burrill Lake, Australia. Photo / AP
A firefighter battles flames near Burrill Lake, Australia. Photo / AP

The Bureau of Meteorology said the system was 335km west of Kuri Bay and 320km north to northwest of Broome and was tracking parallel to the Kimberley Coast.

The ferocity and scale of Australia's bushfires have horrified the world, with several countries, including the US, Canada and New Zealand, flying in extra firefighters and celebrities pledging massive donations to rural volunteers and victims.

David Bowman, pyrogeography and fire science professor and director of the University of Tasmania's Fire Centre Research Hub, compared the situation to a "war".

"The intensity, the scale, the number, the geographical range, the fact that they're occurring simultaneously and the sorts of environments that are burning are all extraordinary," Prof Bowman told TIME magazine.

"We're in the middle of a war situation … mass evacuations, the involvement of the military, hugely exhausted firefighting campaigns, it's difficult to explain."

High-profile climate scientist and author Tim Flannery said Australia was in the grip of "a national catastrophe" that would be extremely difficult to fix, let alone recover from.

"It's clear that whatever the Government policies are, they are inadequate," Prof Flannery told Democracy Now! on Friday.

"We have seen enormous damage in this country to infrastructure, loss of human life and to biodiversity. And this is being driven by climate change. We know that because the chances of this occurring naturally, they're about one in 350 to have a year as hot as this."